"murder... vandalism, mishegaas"*

"We're trying to run a city, not a goddam democracy!"

This weekend I saw "The Taking of Pelham 123," the classic heist movie from 1974. With Walter Matthau, Jerry Stiller, and a mesmerizing Robert Shaw, among others, and a brash, driving and consummately 1970s musical score by David Shire (nothing says 70s like a big honkin' horn section) it was much be
tter than I had vaguely recalled from tv viewing. The real fascination for me, though, was the window onto a vanished New York.

I'd been thinking about New York City in its "heyday"--when the city itself was a character on film, not just the backdrop. From lovable ramshackle mess --all crumbling infrastructure and idiosyncratic "Only in New York!" punchlines to dystopian nightmare. In a recent post I talked about New York before anyone thought to Y it--when it was "Fun City": fiscal crises, transit strikes and blackouts.**
In the movie's original review, published October 1974 in the New York Times, Nora Sayre, made the keen observation that: "Throughout, there's a skillful balance between the vulnerability of New Yorkers and the drastic, provocative sense of comedy that thrives all over our sidewalks." Fatalistic resignation and a dose of exasperated humor in the face of menace was every New Yorker's stance-- at least on film.

The movie was a study in obsolete apparatus: money counting machines, bulky intercoms, lightbulbs flashing on oversized analog display panels, and comically large and noisy buttons. Everyone spoke in a strikingly antiquated dialect that didn't seem possible that late in time--more Jimmy Cagney than Jimmy Breslin-- '"noive" center,' "For Pete's sake," "lousy," "dame"... (but I suppose Archie Bunker was still switching his "oi"s and his "er"s --"terlet" or little "goil"--on prime time well into the 70s).
* Walther Matthau as MTA chief Zachary Garber: "In the course of a normal week, the average TA policeman deals with such crimes as robbery, assault, murder, drunkenness, illness, vandalism, mishegaas, abusiveness, sexual molestation, exhibitionism..." Addendum for those non-New Yorkers who may be reading: mishegaas is Yiddish meaning "craziness, tomfoolery." Yiddish was one of the big contributors-- in vocabulary and intonation-- to the distinctive "New Yawk" accent.

**What would a New York City-Fun City film festival include? Death Wish, Escape from NY, The Out of Towners? Someone with a better knowledge of cinema could do wonders...

I'm not sure what accounts for the three different poster approaches above but I like the first one with its grainy high-contrast black and bilious yellow. Setting everything on the diagonal, with the subway car careening out of the frame, is brilliant.


the art of memory said...

i looove this movie
nice to see the posters.

Anonymous said...

I love this movie too. I have even read the book and given the book as a gift. The book is very good too. Very well-researched.

I don't think there's another movie that features NYC as successfully as 123.

The Sweet Smell of Success is a great movie with good NY flavor.

Anonymous said...

My favorite line in Pelham is "What do they expect for 35 cents, to live forever?"

Anonymous said...

I haven't see A Thousand Clowns since I was a kid, but I remember it had some glorous shots of NYC street scenes. In true sixties fashion the hero rejects society's oppressive rules. He's an appealing bathrobe wearer, a comical yakker and a philosophical seeker, who seems to be having a great time. When he leaves the apartment, the NYC he sees is a symphony of glorious architecture and cool street life. I bet the soundtrack is good too although I can't recall what they used.


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