15. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
Director: Joseph Sargent
Screenwriter: Peter Stone
Though it's more of a cult classic than a bona fide "hit," Joseph Sargent's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, adapted from a novel by John Godey, is a film worth seeking out only in its original version (read: not the 1998 made-for-TV movie version with Edward James Olmos and Vincent D'Onofrio and definitely not Tony Scott's 2009 remake starring John Travolta and Denzel Washington). It's a particularly nostalgic treat for any New Yorker forced to contend with the 6 train on a daily basis, as a quartet of baddies known simply by their colored code names —Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo) and Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman)—board a downtown train at four different stations, then hijack the first car and its 17 strap-hangers. (It the code name concept sounds familiar, it's because Quentin Tarantino stole it for Reservoir Dogs.)
What could four guys possibly do with a single subway parked in an underground tunnel? That's what Transit Authority lieutenants Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) and Rico Patrone (Jerry Stiller) are trying to figure out. But Mr. Blue is demanding that $1 million be delivered within the hour, with one passenger killed for every minute they are late.
Pelham is one of those rare movies where there's not a single bit of superfluity; every verbal exchange and action actually pushes the film forward and helps to create a perfect balance of suspense and comedy. While the film's two updates suggest that some might believe it to be dated, it's the film's period setting that is key to its thrills: With the hijackers below ground and the Transit Authority above, neither party can see what the other is doing. (Try doing that today without a few hundred Tweets or Vine videos.) The only thing Garber knows is that leader Blue has an English accent and Green is fighting a killer cold (throughout their negotiations, Green sneezes, to which Garber tells him "Gesundheit").
The hijackers' machinations really need to be seen to be appreciated, but in the end only Green gets away. Garber and Patrone, convinced that the fourth hijacker must be a former transit employee, pay house calls to a list of potential suspects. With a pile of money hiding in his stove, Green lies his way through their line of questioning well enough that they leave. But just as they step outside Green sneezes yet again and Garber knows they've got their man. The freeze on Matthau's expression is priceless. Gesundheit? —JW