This underrated action movie inspired Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Here’s why you should watch it

Walter Matthau as Lt Garber shakes some sense into his fellow transit authority worker in The Taking of Pelham 123
MGM/United Artists

Amazon Prime Video has slowly been building a huge catalog of Oscar-winning classics in addition to such original fare as Reacher. From Stanley Kubrick to Robert Altman, the streamer is a film lover’s dream, and a surprisingly good way to watch Hollywood classics. But there’s one movie currently streaming that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, and is worth checking out for anyone craving a solid two hours of entertainment.

Joseph Sargent’s underrated 1974 movie The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (also known as The Taking of Pelham 123)  isn’t that well known beyond hardcore film fans, and that’s a mistake that needs correcting in 2024. A heist film with an extremely unique location, Pelham 123 is a New York City-set movie classic that is both of its time and timeless. It’s a thriller with a tight narrative, created with a skill and grit mostly missing in today’s action movies, and is just as tense and effective now as it was 50 years ago.

It defined the classic heist movie blueprint

Hector Elizando as Mr. Grey observes the hostages that are onboard the train in The Taking of Pelham 123
MGM/United Artists

Far from the first of its kind, The Taking of Pelham 123 set in stone what is now taken as the blueprint for almost all modern heist movies. We are introduced to our antagonists early: a group of meticulous robbers who commandeer a New York City subway car and take all passengers hostage. They keep their communication with the authorities brief but direct and hardly deviate from the plan of asking for $1 million. All while under the cover of the radio within the cab and the sprawling tunnels under the Big Apple.

On the other side of the conversation are the transit authority members working to get the passengers home safely and the culprits in handcuffs. The movie’s primary protagonist is Lt. Garber, played by Walter Matthau (The Bad News Bears). He serves as the viewer’s conduit to the situation. He is the chief contact for the criminals and helps shepherd the viewer’s questions/concerns into tangible actions.

The film adopts a split narrative that, while simple, is incredibly effective. Sargent cuts between Garber trying to save the passengers and the passengers themselves, who are scared and confused because they lack the information Garber, and therefore the audience, slowly but methodically attains. It’s why the movie accumulates so much tension as it progresses; the more Garber knows, the closer he gets to freeing the passengers.

Colorful characters that are hard to forget

Walter Matthau as Lt Garber speaks over the radio to the criminals in The Taking of Pelham 123
MGM/United Artists

“Colorful” is a perfect adjective for these characters, not only personality-wise but also in a literal sense. The “robbers” themselves are never given names and are only labeled under “Mr.” followed by a color. (Sound familiar?) Mr. Blue, Mr. Brown, Mr. Green, and Mr. Grey are all as distinct as their names, each having a key role, such as leader, mechanical expert, and wild card. Their names add a layer of mystique to the men, making them feel less like people we can relate to and more like emotionless blank slates who only desire one thing: money.

Meanwhile, at the station, Lt. Garber and his crew act as comic relief to help alleviate the tension and terror the audience sees in the Pelham-bound subway car. Garber has a sharp wit to match the man across the phone but some hilarious missteps prior to the heist help ground him as the central hero the audience can connect to. His comrades act as hecklers to the performance in front of them, expressing their frustrated views in equal amounts of comedic quips to both Garber and the criminal crew.

In addition, we meet a perpetually ill NYC mayor with nothing but the election on his mind, a patrol officer who is a little too close to the action, and the entrapped subway car passengers who range from a mother with children to a pimp hoping to make a criminal connection. Jan de Bont’s Speed borrowed from Pelham‘s playbook by using its kidnapped passengers as an effective mirror the cities their movies were located in. Any New Yorker, then and now, can look at Pelham‘s subway passengers and see the diverse and eclectic makeup of their city staring back at them.

A lasting legacy 

Multiple Actors as Mr. Blue, Green, Grey, & Brown discussing how to leave the subway tunnels in The Taking of Pelham 123.
MGM/United Artists

While The Taking of Pelham 123 is an adaptation of a book by John Godey, that has not stopped the film from spawning a legacy of its own. Primarily, this can be seen in the movie Reservoir Dogs by Quentin Tarantino where most of the heist crew’s names are all colors with “Mr.” in front. Tarantino has never directly admitted to finding inspiration from the film but given his praise for classics from this era, using a similar naming technique for his heist film is more than a coincidence.

The movie also spawned multiple remakes, but the most notable one was the 2009 adaptation by Tony Scott starring John Travolta and Denzel Washington. While not nearly as strong, it is a testament to how directors, actors, and studios view the movie to this day that Scott largely left the concept and execution intact. It even affected the real NYC subway by originally banning but now actively choosing to have no train leave from Pelham Bay at 1:23 a.m. or p.m. due to the fear of it being mobbed by fans of the movie looking to replicate the experience.

The Taking of Pelham 123 is an important movie, more so than probably the creators intended, because of its lasting legacy on Hollywood studio filmmaking. The film is crackerjack entertainment, offering thrills, laughs, and a final shot that can only be described as perfect. But more importantly, it influenced decades of more popular action movies, and it deserves some love and attention as it turns 50 this year.

The Taking of Pelham 123 is streaming on Amazon Prime now.