The Taking of Pelham One Two Three: Which version is the best?

The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009 film)

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Last night my wife and I watched The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, the 2009 version of the 1974 movie based on the 1973 book by John Godey, the pen name of  Morton Freedgood. It concluded a personal goal that I had set for myself to watch both versions after reading the novel in late October. Up until the point I discovered the book in the basement of our library, I didn’t realize that the movies were based on a book of the same name.

So I thought I’d compare and contrast the three here on this blog, and here I am. After last night’s movie, I bumped up my early assessment of the first movie, while my initial thoughts on the  book remained the same. To cut to the chase, I’d give the book a 3 out of 5 stars, in that it is worth getting out of your local library, if you can find it; the first movie, 3.5 to maybe 4 out of 5 stars, because it is such a quintessential 70s movie and Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw and Martin Balsam all shine; the second movie, a solid one star out of five stars and even that might be generous.

The story in each of the incarnations centers around a group of men hijacking a subway car for money; in the book and first movie, it is a $1 million. In the 2009 movie, it is $10 million. In the book, the story is told through the viewpoints of a large cast of characters, from the hijackers to the police to the hostages, and in keeping with the times, the book is stock full of racial and sexist stereotypes and slurs. However, in its defense, Godey is writing from the viewpoint of each of the characters. It is not necessarily his own view.

The main difference from the book to the 1974 movie to the 2009 movie is the character Walter Matthau plays in the 1974 movie: Lieutenant Zachary Garber of the Transit Authority Police. In the book, he is known as Clive Prescott and doesn’t play as central a role throughout the book. In the 1974 movie, Garber is the protagonist to the antagonist of Mr. Blue (played by Robert Shaw). Finally, in the 2009 movie, Zachary Garber becomes Walter Garber, played by Denzel Washington, and isn’t a policeman, but a dispatcher with the transit authority. The best of the three is definitely Matthau, because of his 1970s sensibilities and sense of humor that he brings to the character, and the worst of the three is absolutely Washington, but through no fault of his own, but thanks to the screenwriters which make his character a superfluous subplot.

Another key difference among the versions is the character of Mr. Blue as played by Shaw in the 1974 version and known as Ryder in both the book and the last movie. In the book, of course, his story is more elaborate and fleshed out than in the other two versions, because Godey is able to give the reader Ryder’s background as a mercenary. In the first movie, his story is very similar to the one from the book, but with Shaw bringing a low-key but memorable performance as the character. In the 2009 movie, the character’s story is reduced to a crazed gunman, played by John Travolta, who only seems to be proficient with his gun and many variations of the word “fuck.”

Last but not least in differences is the character known as Longman in the book, Green (Martin Balsam) in the first movie and Phil Ramos (Luis Guzman) in the second movie. Longman/Green plays a key role throughout the first book and movie, with the police trying to discover who he is, and, in fact, gets the closing scene in both. Meanwhile, in the deplorable 2009 version, Ramos is identified quickly and his role is reduced to a minor subplot.

Bottom line, if you’re going to pay attention to any version of this (I learned this morning there also was a TV movie made in 1998 with Edward James Olmos based off the book, but based on reviews I found online, I’m not going to bother searching for it), this is the one you want to see:

One response to “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three: Which version is the best?

  1. Pingback: Narrowing the gap between the number of books read and movies watched this year | an unfinished person (in this unfinished universe)