*. The bestselling-but-now-hard-to-find 1973 novel by John Godey (pen name of Morton Freedgood) was filmed three times: in 1974, 1998, and 2009. Looking at all three provides a quick study of the evolution of the modern action film. What were things like in the ’70s?
*. For starters, you didn’t need a bunch of buff Hollywood pretty boys as your leads. Walter Matthau is rumpled as usual here, and looks almost clownish in plaid shirt and yellow tie. He also does almost nothing but talk into the radio until the very end. His second in command is Jerry Stiller. Enough said.
*. On the other side, Robert Shaw is perfect, as always, playing the cold and menacing Mr. Blue. The bow tie and tweed jacket don’t hold him back at all. The more sympathetic bad guy is Martin Balsam, who we may be rooting for just because he always seems so hard done by.
*. All good actors, but none of them big stars or conventional leading men.
*. A million dollars meant something in 1974. It’s hard not to smile when Shaw delivers his ransom demand, and we may think of Dr. Evil from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. Then the smile turns into a loud chuckle as the mayor complains that New York City doesn’t have a million dollars to pay them.
*. Note in this regard how the Old Man says that one million dollars is “not so terrific” a ransom. I guess he figures that he and the rest of the hostages should be worth more.
*. Let’s look at inflation. At one point Correll mentions that the fare is 35 cents (his line, which is a good one: “Screw the goddamn passengers! What the hell did they expect for their lousy 35 cents – to live forever?”). As of this writing, the subway fare in New York City is $2.75. So it’s gone up eight times. Would asking for a ransom of eight million dollars sound acceptable today? Keep in mind they have to split it four ways.
*. There are no big action sequences or spectacular stunts, and surprisingly little violence.
*. There are no women involved. There are some women on the train, and one is a dispatcher, but they play no role in the plot at all. Matthau never mentions a wife, and the hijackers all appear to be single. The mayor is married, but spends more time on screen with his nurse.
*. Godey’s novel is full of racial politics. The movie simplifies this into “being Black is funny.” It’s meant to be a joke when Matthau discovers that the police chief he’s been working with throughout the crisis is Black. Perhaps that seemed odd in 1974. And when the Black cop in the tunnel warns the snipers to look out for him because he’s hard to see in the dark we’re supposed to laugh. Finally there has to be one superfly pimp-daddy on the subway car who, despite being a Vietnam veteran, is busted in the face and called a “nigger.” In the novel he’s a Black militant.
*. Gay jokes often went hand in hand with Black jokes at the time (especially in Mel Brooks movies!), but the only gay aside here is Matthau’s curious deduction that because “The guy who’s talking’s got a heavy English accent, he could be a fruitcake.” That’s not in the novel either, by the way.
*. The comic moments would go on to become a staple of action films in the ’80s and ’90s (think of the Die Hard franchise). Here they’re not very funny, and they seem unnecessary to me as there is little actual suspense to require relief. The whiny mayor who is peeved that he misses part of the Newlywed Show, the drunk lady who sleeps through the whole ordeal, some of the banter in the control room . . . it all makes you wonder what genre the producers were really aiming for. But then, if you’re hero is Walter Matthau you’re already in action-comedy territory.
*. The comic moments are, by the way, almost all original to the film. Godey’s book has none. The best lines (for example, the cop telling his partner that the million dollars is significant for “what it buys, not what it weighs,” or Shaw’s cool countdown from forty-nine to forty-eight minutes) were by screenwriter Peter Stone.
*. It’s actually makes for an interesting twist on the heist movie that there is no time spent assembling the gang or going over plans. When the movie begins the action is already underway. And we never find out much about the hijackers. They remain colours without any back story (a conceit Tarantino would pick up on in Reservoir Dogs).
*. I think perhaps the main problem I have with the story is that so much depends on the cleverness of the scheme itself. The movie really builds this up: just how are they going to get away with it? It’s the same principle that’s in work in all of the Ocean’s Eleven movies. The crime seems impossible, so there must be some incredible trick they’re going to pull. Well, the trick here really isn’t that impressive, and when it’s executed it’s not even entirely clear what it is they do. We see the gang members doing some work on the track, and we assume they’re doing something to override the dead man’s brake, but what? Meanwhile it shows a singular lack of imagination on Matthau’s part not to think of what might be going on, especially given how they know the train stopped for so long at one location (a location that subsequently nobody bothers to cover).
*. The trailer announces: “Millions have read it [that is, Godey’s novel], now you can live it.” I’m not sure I understand the implication. We “live” a movie more than we do a book?
*. All in all it seems a typical film of its time: the music is brassy, the New York streets grungy, the people of the city even grungier. There’s an interesting cast and an original premise. And also . . . a sense of innocence? Perhaps this is the biggest difference between then and now. The gang aren’t terrorists, domestic or otherwise. All they want is that bag of money.