Yesterday brought the news that Joseph Sargent, the director of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, died at 89. This is particularly sad because Sargent–the journeyman director with nearly 90 credits–made perhaps the greatest Jewish action movie.
Pelham, for those of you who somehow haven’t seen it, is about the hijacking of a New York City subway in the early 1970s. It’s insanely memorable–David Shire’s thumping, horn-driven score, Owen Roizman’s gorgeous and dirty cinematography, and a cast that’s a who’s who of great character actors, including Jerry Stiller, Robert Shaw and Martin Balsam.
But let’s not forget that Pelham is also, as David Edelstein put it, “a New York Jewish comedy writer’s take on the modern metropolis going meshuggener.” It’s an action movie with the soul of a Catskills timeshare.
I mean, just look at the names of these characters: Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau’s police lieutenant), Harold Longman (Balsam’s crooked former MTA employee), and Caz Dolowicz (Tom Pedi’s supervising towerman). Then there’s the mayor, identified only as “Al,” who looks an awful lot like Ed Koch.
Here’s Al (Lee Wallace), in conversation with his deputy (Tony Roberts), doing his best to not make a decision:
(It’s not the only Yiddish in script; Matthau grouses about mishegas to several confused Japanese visitors.)
There’s also a very Jewish fatalistic through-line in Pelham, and an equally Jewish stubbornness to keep making jokes as everything’s gone to shit.
Here’s Al’s assistant’s cynical take on why he ought to pay off the terrorists:
Anyway, watch Pelham. But not the remake, which is terrible.
Related: ‘Pelham,’ de-Jewified