Walter Matthau was once described as resembling a bloodhound with a head cold, which is a rather unfair description when applied to his role as Lt. Zachary Garber of the New York City Transit Police in Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). As hangdog and curmudgeonly as he may be, he’s a cop who gets his man – albeit right at the bitter end of the movie.
At the risk of dishing out major spoilers, Garber and his colleague Rico Patrone (Jerry Spiller) have whittled down the suspected lone survivor of a gang of subway train hijackers to a handful of former train motormen. The culprit, Harold ‘Mr. Green’ Longman (Martin Balsam), thinks he’s managed to dodge justice when Garber and Patrone come knocking. He rides his luck and manages to convince the cops he’s innocent, even getting annoyed with them for disturbing his sleep as he shoos them out of his apartment.
Then he sneezes. Garber, practically out of the door, responds instinctively with ‘gesundheit’ and the penny drops; he heard that same sneeze in the background several times over the train radio throughout the hijack and on each occasion issued his stock response. The very final shot of the film needs no dialogue after that final gesundheit; Garber slowly re-enters, the door hinges sing a thin descending squeak as Longman’s guilt dawns on him, and the picture freezes on that face. It’s surely one of the neatest, most economical endings to a film ever.
Director Sargent seemed a little preoccupied with acute viral respiratory tract infections in the film. Not only is Longman stricken with germs, so too is the Mayor of New York (Lee Wallace) who is bed-ridden with the ‘flu. We see him repeatedly blowing his nose and throwing dirty tissues on the bedroom floor and at one point witness him taking an antibiotic shot in the backside. His infected ineffectuality is emblematic of the city as a Sick Man.
Indeed watching Pelham One Two Three is a little like coming down with a cold, if it’s possible to regard such a thing as an interesting cine-cultural experience. This is NYC at the peak/trough of its seventies movie grittiness, thanks in large part to the work of Owen Roizman, one of the most respected New York cinematographers – he was born in Brooklyn – whose father Sol was a Fox Movietone News cameraman and who is responsible for some of the best low-lit street realism photography to come out of American Cinema from this period; aside from Pelham One Two Three he was William Friedkin’s director of photography on The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) and also worked on several other key films from the decade including Three Days of the Condor (Sydney Pollack 1975), Network (Sidney Lumet) and Straight Time (Ulu Grosbard 1978).