21 Things We Learned from ‘The Taking of Pelham One Two Three’ Commentary

“It ends on a perfect shot.”

The vast majority of commentary tracks feature a cast member or filmmaker directly associated with the film itself for obvious reasons — who better to offer insight and anecdotes on the production? That’s sometimes a luxury for older films, though, as each year sees more talents pass away. Happily, every movie has its fans… and the great movies have super fans.

1974’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a great movie, and two of its super fans recorded a commentary track for KL Studio Classics’ recent Blu-ray. Any concern that these “outsiders” might not have much to talk about is quickly squashed as they immediately dive in with a wealth of knowledge on the film and its cast & crew.

Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for…

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

Commentators: Pat Healy (fan/actor) and Jim Healy (film programmer/historian)

1. This may surprise you, but they’re brothers!

2. They recall their father having John Godey‘s source novel on his bookshelf when they were kids.

3. We all know Tony Scott adapted the novel as well in 2009, but it was also made into a TV movie in 1998 starring Edward James Olmos, Vincent D’Onofrio, Donnie Walberg, and Richard Schiff.

4. Director Joseph Sargent apparently had to convince cinematographer Owen Roizman that widescreen would capture a better sense of claustrophobia than 1.85:1 as it would “more resembles… the low ceilings of the subway car.”

5. Mr. Brown is played by Earl Hindman, who in addition to starring in 1974’s The Parallax View is also best known as the neighbor on Home Improvement whose face we never see.

6. Matthew Broderick’s father, James Broderick, plays the motorman.

7. The novel doesn’t spend much time at all with the transit cop character played here by Walter Matthau as Lt. Garber, and the book actually has a separate character named Garber as well. The actor loved the script, written by Peter Stone — who had written two previous films co-starring Matthau — and once he expressed interest they began beefing up the role.

8. New York City’s transit authority initially refused access to the production as they were concerned about copycat criminals, but they relented after convincing United Artists to buy “anti-hijacking” insurance for $75k on top of a flat $275k for shooting rights.

9. Matthau wasn’t a fan of the script’s foul language.

10. “The Corbomite Maneuver” is one of Pat Healy’s favorite episodes of the original Star Trek.

11. Roizman and editor Gerald B. Greenberg both worked on The French Connection three years prior.

12. Composer David Shire also wrote the score for The Conversation the same year, which was directed by his brother-in-law at the time, Francis Ford Coppola.

13. Jim Healy spent time in Rochester, NY, as curator of film exhibitions at the George Eastman House, and he brought Sargent in for a series of heist screenings. I’m from Rochester!

14. The cop in the passenger seat of the car delivering the ransom money is played by Burtt Harris who’s better known as producer on numerous Sidney Lumet films like Prince of the City, Deathtrap, and The Verdict.

15. They mention 1967’s The Incident — Martin Sheen and Tony Musante play thugs who harass late-night riders on a NYC subway car — which I just recently discovered, loved, and wrote about elsewhere, so I’ll take this as an opportunity to recommend you seek it out as well.

16. Per Jim Healy and Variety, only three movies between 1930-1968 featuring a cop hero cracked the top 20 at the box office — 1936’s Bullets or Ballots, 1951’s Detective Story, and 1954’s Dragnet. That began changing in the late 60s with films like Bullitt.

17. The hijackers in the novel wore masks and used their actual names, but Stone added the color-coded idea in his script. It’s smarter, but it also prevents great actors from having to perform with masks.

18. Pat Healy worked with Hector Elizondo (who plays Mr. Grey here) on Chicago Hope and “kept pestering him about this movie.”

19. Sargent recalled it being a “golden safety rule” during filming that no one get close to the electrified third rail despite the mostly confident belief that it was powered off by the transit authorities. There was apparently always a risk that someone might turn it back on again by accident or because they were unaware that it was off for a reason.

20. They rightly point out that today’s action films would rarely allow the villain to take his own life. “He would have to be shot eighteen times by Walter Matthau, and then fall and then a train would run him over, and that would propel him into the street where he’d get hit by a bus.”

21. Matthau’s son, Charlie, says the final shot is Matthau imitating him imitating Charlie Chaplin.

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“In an ideal world there would have been five more movies featuring [Matthau and Jerry Stiller] teaming up and solving crimes.”

“Or Sssssss.”

“We can thank the remake for that, at least.”

Buy The Taking of Pelham One Two Three on Blu-ray from Amazon.

Final Thoughts

This a strong track and entertaining listen as the brothers Healy reveal an immense knowledge of film in general and this movie in particular. They offer anecdotes cribbed from interviews and biographies, share details on the production itself, and connect the dots across cast members’ filmographies and the cinema of the city. The movie’s well worth picking up all on its own, but once you’ve watched the film itself be sure to give this track a listen.

Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.