THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 is not a good movie, but it illustrates why bad movies work

pelham-1-2-3-posterI’ve been watching a lot of thriller lately, and the latest one was the 1974 version of the TAKING OF PELHAM 123. You know, I often know nothing about these movies: I just get them off some online list of ‘The greatest thrillers of all time…’ Which is probably good. Makes it that much more thrilling.

THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 is basically “Die Hard on a train” except it was before Die Hard had come out, so they didn’t really know how to do it. For instance, there’s a cop on the train, but he really doesn’t do anything. There’s no plotting or maneuvering. And, in fact, the police are hugely incompetent and the audience stand-in character, Walter Matthau, is well-meaning and intelligent but is basically fairly hapless through out. If this movie is anything, it’s a heist movie. Because the hostage-takers are on a train, underground, you’re always wondering how they’re going to manage to escape. And, in the absence of anyone else who’s doing anything brave or clever, you end up rooting for them almost by default.

Which is helped by two amazing performances by Robert Shaw and Martin Balsam as Mr. Blue, the extremely cold and imperturbable leader of the gang, and Mr. Green–his opposite, a train motorman who somehow got roped into the heist. The interplay between the two is fantastic, because they obviously trust and respect each other, but at the same time they’re very different personalities.

However, not much happens in the movie. This isn’t necessarily terrible. What makes a thriller work is the anticipation of action, rather than the action itself. However, in this case it went too much in that direction. You’re watching this movie basically for the answer to one question: how do the kidnappers get away from this situation. And then when it happens you’re like, “Okay…that actually seems pretty simple” and the reason it’s a huge disappointment is because although you’ve been told that it’s difficult to escape from a subway tunnel without being caught, you haven’t actually seen it. Whereas if they’d tried and failed several times, this movie would’ve felt very different.

Still, the movie was a hit, and from that I take away one lesson. If you can keep an audience’s attention focused on one central question, then you can make them sit still through anything. Even I, who could’ve turned off the TV at any point (I’m notorious for leaving movies halfway through), kept soldiering through just because I wanted to know the answer.

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