Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Ebert Thoughts ‘14—The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) ****

Director: Joseph Sargent
Writers: Peter Stone, John Godey (novel)
Starring: Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, Earl Hindman, James Broderick, Dick O’Neill, Lee Wallace, Tony Roberts, Tom Pedi, Beatrice Winde, Jerry Stiller, Nathan George, Rudy Bond, Kenneth McMillan, Doris Roberts, Julius Harris, Anna Berger, Mari Gorman, Michael Gorrin, Maria Landa, George Lee Miles

The 16th Annual Roger Ebert Film Festival unofficially begins today in Champaign, Ill. It is the first to be entirely organized without Roger’s involvement. Suddenly the profound loss the cinematic community felt last year when he passed just a couple weeks before the 15th Annual is felt all over again.

Today is the unofficial opening because today’s film is only sort of part of the festival. Tomorrow night’s screening of Steve James’s documentary about the life of Roger Ebert “Life Itself” is this year’s official opening. Today’s film is actually a free student screening taking place on the campus of the University of Illinois. It is also reconciling an unpreventable wrong from a couple of years ago. A few years ago, Roger invited comedian Patton Oswalt to be a guest at the festival for a festival screening of his excellent starring role in “Big Fan”. Oswalt agreed under the condition that he could host a student screening of one of his favorite films. That movie was the Alec Guinness multiple role mystery comedy “Kind Hearts and Coronets”. Unfortunately, a last minute emergency prevented Oswalt from attending that year.

This year, the festival organizers have invited Oswalt back to be a guest for the screening of his film “Young Adult”, in which he is also quite excellent. Again Oswalt wished to host a screening of one of his favorite films. This time the movie he’s hosting is the B-crime thriller “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three”. Knowing what a cineaste Oswalt is, I would just love to know what he’s going to talk about in his discussion of this film.

The greatest thing about this choice, however, is that I had never seen the original until it showed up on this year’s Ebertfest schedule. Oh, I’d seen the Tony Scott remake starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta, and while it’s difficult to call anything Denzel’s involved with lame… uh… well, I guess you can see where I’m going. The problem with the remake is that it’s more about the plot than the characters. John Travolta chews scenery as the villain. Denzel is serious and heavy as the put upon controller who must bear this burden along with his own personal ones. Neither is ever really human, they’re just tools of the plot given the semblance of humanity.

Robert Shaw, as the villain in the original however; well he doesn’t have to do anything to chew scenery. All he has to do is look at someone and you know everything you need to know about what’s going on in that sinister brain of his. Of course, he’s not entirely sinister either. He’s merely an opportunist. It’s the then unknown Hector Elizondo, always likeable as his man of wisdom in “Pretty Woman” and just about every other movie by Garry Marshall, who is the loose cannon, the nut job. But, he doesn’t do it for the audience, there’s some internal screw loose.

Of course, as a comedian, I suspect Oswalt’s favorite aspect of this movie is the irascible Walter Matthau as the Transit Authority detective coordinating the negotiations for a hostage situation on a Manhattan subway car. Matthau is almost never serious in this roll. He quips and jokes at every development. Only when a co-worker who can’t stop complaining finally needs to be shut up does he drop his sarcastic demeanor to lay it down. It’s a powerful moment that works so well because the gravity of the situation has simmered in the background rather than being shoved down the audience’s throats.

I’m not entirely sure what the rules are with the student screenings. I don’t know if they’re open to the public. I wouldn’t think so. Which means I’d probably have to wait until his panel discussion on “Young Adult” on Thursday to get any insight, or maybe I would’ve had to corner the poor guy at some other point during the festival. Damn, I wish I could be there. Why’d I have all these kids?

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