Film Studies – Analysis of Narrative and Genre Elements

Film Studies

  • Access to Media
  • Film Studies: Textual Analysis
  • Tutor: Brendan Kedie
  • Assignment: Analysis of Narrative and Genre Elements
  • Film: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (released October 1974)
  • Analysis by Ian Hunt
  • 15 minute extract taken from the DVD of the film starting from 24 minutes into the running time of the Film.

The Film synopsis

A gang of four criminals hijack a New York subway train demanding a $1 million dollar ransom for the lives of the 17 passengers and the trains conductor. The ransom which must be paid within 1 hour (ticking clock) or they start killing the passengers one for every minute after the hour has expired. The key question and the central Enigma of the Film is how are they expecting to get away with the crime/ransom. They are underground in a subway train that can only travel either forward or backwards, it is surrounded by The New York City Police including snipers with nowhere for the train to go without it being monitored and all the surface exits covered.

Firstly looking at Genre of the film it is a Crime Drama/Thriller. The film follows the standard three acts that are; The Set-up, The Confrontation and the Resolution. The setup follows the progress of the four criminals as they separately board the subway train as it travels through the Bronx subway system.

There are the usual conventions for a crime film firstly identifying the criminals who have hijacked the train these include the wearing of a disguise and the use of code names to hide their real identities (possibly the first use of substituting colours for names to identify the criminals? this has been used since in for example the film ‘Reservoir Dogs’ and is now most probably an accepted convention for crime dramas). The four main protagonists are also all wearing similar clothing, overcoats and hats (bad guys wear hats) and they all have moustaches (bad guys again) and all are wearing large thick rimmed glasses to further disguise their faces. American criminals are generally also shown to be armed (iconography) and in this case they are all armed with hand guns, machine guns or both. The New York police are wearing the blue uniforms of the period and all are armed in very much the same way as the criminals with hand and machine guns. Also the non uniformed police are dressed much the same as the criminals with long overcoats and hats.

The Film was made in the period it represents that is the 1970’s and on location in New York (Bronx) and therefore it is a good snapshot of the era it represents. For instance the locations are typical of New York streets the characters both the criminals and the police and the (think 70’s cop dramas e.g. Kojak, Dirty Harry) costumes and its reflection on general American society of the time. For instance everyone thought at the time that the streets of New York are filled with Gangsters and Criminals.

Main Character Development (Character Arc) & Narrative Linkages

Mr Blue – Played by Robert Shaw (A Villain)

  • British Military and an Ex Mercenary.
  • Leader of the criminal gang.
  • Main contact with Authorities.
  • Background is not typical of the normal criminal or gangster.
  • Confirms his position as leader by killing the conductor just to make this point.
  • Commits Suicide rather than go to jail, which is another form of resolution but again not the typical characterisation of a criminal.

Lt Garber – Played by Walter Mattheau (The Hero)

  • New York Transit Police Lieutenant.
  • Is made Chief Negotiator when his Captain calls in to discuss the crime. His role therefore grows into the man in charge.
  • Solves the enigma of how they expect to get away with the crime by introducing the idea that the criminals have found a way around the dead mans switch on the subway train.
  • Captures Mr Blue and provides Resolution in the 2nd Act.
  • Catches the missing gang member Mr Green and recovers the ransom – the final resolution of the film in the 3rd Act.

Mr Green – Played by Martin Balsam (A Villain and Helper)

  • Ex Subway Train Motorman key to the success or failure of the crime and in turn the story
  • Is trusted by Mr Blue.
  • Has a bad cold which becomes important to the resolution of the film when he sneezes and give himself away when interviewed by Lt Garber.

Mr Grey – Played by Hector Elizondo (A Villain)

  • Rebellious does not accept authority.
  • Suspected of being psychotic.
  • Ex Mafia.
  • He is a typical gangster character of the time.
  • Kills because he enjoys it.
  • Is not trusted by Mr Blue.
  • Forces by his rebellious attitude to push Mr Blue into killing the train’s conductor so as to bring him back into line, confirming his leadership.
  • Fails to learn not too disobey Mr Blues orders and is therefore killed by Mr Blue after he disobeys those orders once too often.

Mr Brown – Played by Earl Hindeman (A Villain)

  • A team player trusted by Mr Blue.
  • Has a speech impediment that was not further developed in the film.
  • Is shot and killed by the undercover policeman which then in turn causes the death of Mr Blue as he delays his escape to seek out the policeman leading to his capture by Lt Garber when he discovers that there is no death penalty in the New York State and so commits suicide rather than go to jail.

The film sequence begins with the radio conversation between Mr Blue played by Robert Shaw as he radios the train master to say that he has hijacked the Pelham 123 subway train. The hijacker as well as making the ransom demand describes the members of his gang as being four heavily armed and ruthless criminals without any scruples. He says they will have no hesitation in carrying out their threat to kill a hostage for every minute that the payment of the ransom is delayed. Mr Blue then sets the clock ticking by stating that the hour starts from two thirteen and that the money must be in their hands by three thirteen.

The enigma here is why have they hijacked a Subway train which seems impossible place from which to get away with the crime, this is emphasised by the incredulous initial response made by the Station Master to this statement.

The second main character is then introduced, Lieutenant Zachary Garber of the New York Transit Police played by Walter Matthau who takes over the negotiations for the release of the hostages.

Mr Blue the leader of the gang who is identified later in the film as a former member of the British Military and an Ex Mercenary set the character plot describing his fellow gang members and their characters to Mr Green played by Martin Balsam. He states who he trusts and who he doesn’t, singling out Mr Grey played by Hector Elizondo as being untrustworthy and possibly psychotic citing his expulsion from the Mafia as an example. This becomes apparent later in the sequence when Mr Grey kills the unarmed Transit Authority Supervisor as he approaches the train.

The hostages appear to be a cross section of American society, there are the stereotypes, whose characters in the end credits are not listed under their names but as:- The Maid, The Mother, The Homosexual, The Secretary, The Delivery Boy, The Salesman, The Hooker, The Old Man, The Older Son, The Spanish Woman, The Alcoholic, The Pimp, Coed #1, The Younger Son, Coed #2, The Hippie, The W.A.S.P. (white Anglo-Saxon protestant)? Possibly a means of further involving the audience in the film as they identify with one of the hostages.

There’s a small sub plot in the film which comes to a conclusion in this sequence where a group of Japanese visitors being shown around the Transit Authorities offices by Lieutenant Zachary Garber. Zachary assumed they could not understand English but at least one of them does in fact speak English very well. To the embarrassment of Zachary as he has been making disparaging and insulting remarks while showing them around which he thought they could not understand to quote one example ‘ would you take these monkeys up to thirteen ’.

At the end of this sequence the Mr Green (The Motorman) played by Martin Balsam sneezes and Zachary absolves him by saying Gezunt Height. This becomes key to the final resolution of the film when the character sneezes again at the very end of Police interrogation by Zachary and Rico. In this final scene they are trying to identify the final member of the gang who seemed to get away. It seemed to be a simple idea to insert this into the film at an early stage (The Plant) and then reintroduce it at the end as the final resolution, a good example of cause and effect, he sneezes and he goes to jail.

A new sub plot is introduced, the Mayor who is Jewish and ill with the flu is brought into the story as he authorises the payment of the ransom. As the despised Mayor who is reluctant to pay the ransom he is reminded that he is guaranteed the vote of the 18 hostages if he secures their release. The character played by Lee Wallace resembles the Mayor of the time Edward Irving  Koch or Ed Koch as he was commonly known which may have added to the feeling of a true story at the time of the films release.

There is the enigma of how they are to get the delivery of the ransom to the train on time. Zachary calls the train to get more time to deliver the ransom but Mr Blue just reminds him of the time he has remaining, this ticking clock helps to set the pace of the film moving the action forward each time as Mr Blue repeats back to him the time he has. It is this ticking clock (problematic) the running down of the hour which dictates the pace of the film and helps with audience involvement as they also feel the clock running down. The films sequences from the scenes showing the ransom being counted quickly, the problematic of the police car crashing in its high speed dash though the streets of New York, rushing to deliver the ransom on time.

As Zachary realises that the criminals have no way of knowing where the ransom is as they are below ground he gets agreement from Mr Blue to modify the ransom delivery to the subway station rather than at the train within the hour, his relief is palpable when Mr Blue agrees to this change. This seemingly solves the enigma of what should be the impossible task of being able pay a ransom of $1 Million dollars in just 1 hour.

The enigma of how the gang expected to get away with the crime is resolved from the audience perspective when the Motorman (Mr Green) attaches a device to circumvent the dead mans lever which prevents a subway train from moving unless a driver has a hand continuously on this lever. Lt Garber solves this enigma himself during a car chase scene as they follow the runaway train, reversing the car and going back to where the train stopped for a short time which in turn leads to an resolution when he captures Mr Blue in the subway tunnel.

The circumvention of the dead man switch also leads them to believe that only a trained subway train driver could do this and so they begin a process of interviewing all dismissed subway drivers to try and identify the missing member of the gang (Mr Green) and the missing money. This in turn leads to the final resolution of the film when he is identified as the final gang member in the last scene of the film from his sneezing.