The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

I noticed today that one of my favorite movies is available on Netflix’s “Watch Instantly” (which is a DRM-ridden horror show, but anyway), and I wanted to recommend it if you’re on Netflix (and have Internet Explorer and can use Watch Instantly) or are willing to go out and rent it.

It’s a 1974 crime flick about hijacking a subway car, based on a book. It’s really sweet: it’s tightly plotted, it’s funny, it’s got tension and plot twists (which are not dumb or overly cute), and it has Walter Matthau as a worn police lieutenant and includes what I’d argue is one of the single best lines in any crime drama.

The interesting thing the movie reminds me of is something Pauline Kael used to write about: the value of workmanship. She repeatedly wrote in favor of movies being made simply, without needless directorial embellishment, and Pelham One Two Three is a great example of how it can work. Joseph Sargent’s work up to that point was undistinguished: if you look him up on IMDB, he’s got a ton of credits but there’s nothing that hints his next film will be a four-star masterpiece.

But here, it works: he lets the script and the actors do the lifting, and the story plays out simply. Sometimes, it pays to tell a story with a maximum of economy, which is what I try to remind myself of when I’m writing fiction.

Of course, the movie is being remade by Tony Scott with a cast of stars, due out in 2009. I wonder, though — if you released both versions at the same time, putting out the 1974 version as a period piece, or an “homage to 70s cop movies” or something, I wonder if the older one could compete.

Anyway, Derek says “check it out” if you haven’t already.