My candidate for the best New York film ever was shown on a cable channel the other day. This was the classic “Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” released in 1974.
Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.
Unlike an insipid television remake in 1998 or an intensely violent version with Denzel Washington and an over-the-top John Travolta in 2009, the original thriller about a hijacked subway car had everything: fast-paced dialogue, terrific acting, plenty of cynical wit and a good feel for the city of that era. It even had a Koch-like mayor — a prescient bit of casting, given that Edward I. Koch wasn’t elected until 1977.
(This may be the time to ’fess up to the obvious, namely that no one pays me to be a movie critic. Feel free to offer your own favorite film set in New York. My own list of other possibilities would include “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Serpico,” “Mean Streets,” “Sweet Smell of Success,” “Hester Street” and “Marty,” but you no doubt have your own ideas.)
The reason for bringing up “Pelham” is that a colleague, Michael M. Grynbaum, wrote an article about how crowded the subways are on weekends compared with decades ago. He invited City Room readers to submit their memories of life underground in the 1970s and ’80s. The reminiscences appeared on Monday, some laced with nostalgia, others with what amounted to shouts of “Good riddance to those days.”
I’ve chosen to enter the conversation and throw my lot in with the “good riddance” crowd.
These are worrisome times in the subways. Service has been reduced while fares have gone up. Anyone who waits for a train for what seems like an eternity, or who crams into an impossibly crowded car on a Sunday, or who watches the rats scurry across the tracks, or who puts up with any number of other indignities, has every right to feel aggrieved.
That said, most New Yorkers today are either too young or too new to the city to know how things were 30 or 40 years ago. Trust me on this one: the subways were truly awful back then. They’re in far better shape now.
Not that anyone ever hijacked a train. But the air of menace and decay was so pervasive that people in the ’70s could have been forgiven if they mistook “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” for a documentary.
Black spray-painted graffiti covered almost every inch of every car. The likes of Norman Mailer breezily extolled this defacement as urban art. But New Yorkers who actually rode the subways (unlike Mr. Mailer) saw mindless vandalism and solid evidence that no one was in control.
Another movie spoke to the miserable service of that era: “Last Train From Gun Hill.” It was a 1950s western. But the title could have served as an allegory for mass transit. If you just missed a train at the Gun Hill Road stop on the No. 2 line in the Bronx — or at any other station, for that matter — you couldn’t be sure when, or if, you would ever see another one.
Panhandlers were aggressive, even threatening, compared with today’s more polite bunch. Google “Bernard Goetz” if you want a sense of what can happen when riders feel in constant jeopardy, and decide not to take it anymore.
Routinely, the sliding doors of subway cars failed to open, turning the out-and-in movement of passengers into something on the order of a rugby scrum.
Universal air-conditioning was still years away, although that amenity does come at a price. It may be indispensable. But so much external heat is thrown off, especially from the new cars, that temperatures on platforms, already insufferable, shoot way up.
As for the fare, it was set in July 1981 at 75 cents. That is equivalent to about $1.80 today.
While the basic fare now is $2.25, the average that riders actually pay is put by officials at about $1.65. That’s a result of discounts made possible by the MetroCard, which didn’t exist back in the day.
Those hijacked passengers aboard Pelham One Two Three plunked metal tokens into slots for the privilege of having their lives put on the line. But then, as a petulant trainmaster in the film says, “What the hell did they expect for their lousy 35 cents — to live forever?”
For more local news from The Times, including illegal rice wine sales in Chinatown, a guilty plea from the leader of a drug ring at Columbia University and progress for New Jersey’s proposed medical marijuana program, see the N.Y./Region section.
Here’s what City Room is reading in other papers and blogs this morning.
Children are ducking turnstiles — and fares — in great numbers. [Daily News]
Bedbugs infested city schools at nearly epidemic rates last year. [GothamSchools]
Lance Cpl. Jabari Thompson, 22, from Brooklyn, died in Afghanistan. [New York Post and Daily News]
Republican fund-raisers again urged Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey to enter the 2012 presidential fray. [New York Post/FoxNews.com]
Too soon? Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Hillary Rodham Clinton lead a 2016 presidential poll. [New York Observer]
The Harry Potter lookalike: gift or curse? [New York Observer]
Potbelly sandwich shop is opening in Midtown. [DNAinfo]
Borders could be gone by Friday. [WNYC]
All 35 bikes were stolen from a charity group in Queens. [A Walk in the Park] (Also see The New York Post.)
Nudists dream of a Coney Island swim, despite city opposition. [Brooklyn Paper]
The police are writing fewer traffic tickets in 2011. [New York Post]
A Frank Sinatra favorite, closed in 2008, reopens in Brooklyn. [Daily News]
Boxers hope to knock out cancer at a Bronx benefit. [Daily News]