The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, as I already knew, is a really good film: smart action, great cast, David Shire’s kick-ass score, and a dark, sardonic sense of humor to the whole thing. It went over very well with our audience last night, where it screened as part of the Help D.K. Holm backyard screening series I’ve been attending.
The movie also has New York City 1974 as a character. Sort of.
I got thinking of how filmed entertainment mirrors, well or badly but almost always imperfectly, the time when it’s made. Pelham was made in a period of “gritty realism” in movies, but with the “gritty realism” in quotes, because a lot of what’s onscreen is manufactured. Each flick is written, designed, directed, produced, all of the various jobs needed on a movie, to have a particular impact and make particular statements, and “gritty realism” suited films like Pelham. The movie benefits from that “you are there” approach, making it easier to imagine that kind of hostage situation happening. (So I’m dubious of the 2009 remake that Tony Scott’s directing with Denzel Washington and John Travolta. “Gritty realism” no longer fits Travolta, if it ever did.)
But that approach certainly doesn’t require every last thing in Pelham to be realistic. The hostages are intentional stereotypes (they’re listed in the end credits with such names as “The Pimp” and “The Homosexual”), placed in that subway car to be a cross-section of New York – it would’ve been a much different film if, by random, 70% of the hostages had been Japanese tourists, or a hadassah group – but with no need to be deep creations. Each has a stereotypical look and a few lines of dialogue, and that’s it. And the film has more satirical moments, especially with the disliked and flu-ridden mayor – straining to decide between letting the crooks kill hostages and paying a million-buck ransom the city can’t spare – who’s there to an extent as satirical comic relief. Satire exaggerates its subject, in this case New York City’s bankruptcy and succession of disliked mayors, and satire’s often not deep. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three wasn’t trying to make a deep, moving statement about The Way We Live Now In 1974 New York – it didn’t need to be completely realistic – but it dollops in enough verisimilitude to fit the era really well. I’m sure other movies of the time were trying to say something deep about the 1970s, but I don’t know if I’d want to watch any of those films.
TV of the time sometimes tried to deal with the world as it was, but usually its manufacturing-of-reality was (and still is) sloppily, haphazardly done. I’ve read Harlan Ellison’s “Glass Teat” columns of the late ’60s and early ’70s, a great time capsule of critical thought, and some of TV’s attempts to portray that era of America were cringe-inducing. An era of turmoil, where seemingly half of America was screamingly angry with the other half (“Goddamn filthy hippies ruining everything!”; “Goddamn squares screwing up everything!”; I exaggerate for effect), rarely yielded thoughtful television exploration of that era. There were exceptions – The Smothers Brothers earlier, All in the Family later* – but most of the era’s TV product betrayed, if you were paying attention, the extent of how out-of-touch producers and networks were with the era. (Harlan hilariously depicts a show a network really tried to produce, as an attempt to depict the era’s social unrest, about a guy who’s basically a millionaire playboy philanthropist social worker. My spellcheck just claimed that that phrase had “too many nouns.” That’s just one way the idea’s bad.)
That said, much of Pelham was shot on location in one of the most amazing locales humans have built and inhabited, Manhattan, which looked a certain way in 1974 that is preserved in the film. (Again, as I tend to do, I watched for glimpses of the World Trade Center.) The actors acted while this city went on its way, doing its thing; not everything onscreen is manufactured or put into place precisely by a production designer. The place just is. And, in its way, it’s amazing.
Like all films, the film’s an imperfect snapshot of its moment, with many details captured correctly, some details slightly “off” and many others captured wrong, and you can never again be completely sure what parts of the flick realistically captured the era and what didn’t. (Take ’90s movies. How much mid-’90s realism can one glean from, say, The Rock? You actually can, a bit, through the haze of Michael Bay’s filters and the hit-and-miss one-liners, but that’s because we were all alive back then.) You get some of the look of that time, and some of that time’s attitude, mixed up in what its filmmakers thought about that era, their thoughts conscious and subconscious and even unconscious.
Film criticism: Really just films being psychoanalyzed.
* Neat (to me) footnote: Harlan wrote a “Glass Teat” column about the original pilot for what became the groundbreaking All in the Family, with Carroll O’Connor as Archie Justice, saying Great show with potential to actually say something thoughtful, so it’ll never get on the air. That’s almost certainly a case where Harlan’s glad to have been wrong, though the show did get retooled and likely made more audience-friendly.