Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Opening Titles and Song: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

Having once again attended the splendid TCM Film Festival — the annual gathering of movie lovers in the heart of Hollywood — took in a number of classic movies with those who share a similar passion for them. Particularly, one of my all-time favorite crime thrillers of the ’70s. Granted, a keen period that has branded me. No surprise I sat with my good friend and blogging colleague, Richard Kirkham, for this packed screening at the famed Egyptian Theatre on the last day of the event.

We’re speaking of, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)1.

For another great look at this “crackerjack suspense movie” set in New York City, take in my friend Sergio’s over at Tipping My Fedora.

Would have to say, it didn’t surprise me in the least this was one Richard preferred, too. Or, that this consummate film blogger would highlight it in his Movies I Want Everyone to See series shortly thereafter, which you can find here. You’ll get no argument from me. In fact, gave me an incentive, or excuse, to throw a spotlight on its opening titles sequence. A straightforward affair that grabs the audience as daringly as Mr. Blue did the subway passengers for the ride of their lives.

But first, for what director Joseph Sargent is about to spring on his audience, some perspective has to be set. Comparably, the New York City of then versus today couldn’t be more stark2. The decline of industry and the economy3, no doubt helped along with the social upheaval part and parcel of the calamity post the Vietnam War, had an enormous effect upon the country. NYC was the poster child for what hatched during the ’60s and came to malfunctioning fruition during the ’70s.

Drugs, crime, and police corruption bloomed for Gotham’s city dwellers to an extent it permeated not only their daily lives, but placed on gritty display across news broadcasts, television dramas, and pop cinema. As prominent as the graffiti that covered Grand Central Station and the rest of the city’s subways. In fact, a good portion of that crime occurred on mass transit — so much so the metropolitan would enjoy the highest crime rate for any such transit network in the world by decade’s end.

Welcome, then, to one scary place and time4, and only a gruff “New York City” mentality got you through it — for victim and predator, alike.

It’s this attitude that comes across most succinctly in the unadorned opening titles sequence for The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. The ambiance care of Academy Award-winning film composer David Shire‘s booming big band theme and the unsung graphics crew who crafted the austere white on black credits that appear onscreen. From the start, the city behind it all, the most immutable character of the entire movie, given a darkly jazz-tinged heartbeat and a palpable presence.

Without question, Shire’s driving title piece is nothing short of brassy brilliance; the living, breathing, menacing soul of the uniquely American megalopolis. The tall urban-styled font splashed on the screen, acknowledging the filmmakers who dared take on the task, along with the city, warning-like in their appearance. Telling the audience “tourists” taking it in (or even thinking of coming to The Big Apple) to watch out — and not to make eye contact — if you know what’s good for you.

While there was nothing exactly “new” about plain titles splashing a movie’s title cards against an unlit backcloth, that bleak blackness holding the credits up also establish a platform for what’s being conveyed. Symbolic not only for the darkness subway riders glanced out at in their underground transport, but matched in the hearts of those they hoped wouldn’t prey on them while using their subway token. To say nothing of the empty economic gloom already laying siege overhead.

In retrospect, the sequence is nothing short of startling in its sudden dingy brashness, yet definitive in determining a distinct texture. An inner-citified one, for sure, and amp’d by David Shire’s big city music5 shouldering its way through the bustle. Its inky framing of those starkly simple graphics flicking out of the murkiness, like a switchblade. All meant to keep the viewer wary. Accomplishing it without a hint of the grainy, live-action visuals, in all their tenaciously desperate glory, soon to arrive.

  1. The late director Tony Scott would remake the film as The Taking of Pelham 123 in 2009; its lead, Denzel Washington, would pay homage to the original with his wardrobe — mirroring the color-scheme used by Walter Matthau, who wore a distinctive multi-colored shirt and a yellow tie. {IMDB} 
  2. The current major commercial intersection, tourist destination, and entertainment gravity well that is Times Square, back in the day was the seedy epicenter of the sex industry in New York City, featuring go-go bars, sex shops, peep shows, and adult theaters, and was the infamous symbol of the city’s decline. 
  3. In fact, a year after Joseph Sargent’s movie debuted, New York City would suffer “an unprecedented fiscal crisis in 1975, and two years later the city descended into chaos after the power went out for 25 hours.” {Business Insider
  4. Little wonder director John Carpenter would use this metropolis the next decade over as the centerpiece for his seminal escapist thriller, Escape From New York (1981). 
  5. Ironically, the score is not much longer from what’s initially thrown the audience’s way. David Shire had only a few weeks to compose the entire score for the movie, which used a 12-tone composition method to create unusual, somewhat dissonant melodic elements, and the prime reason the soundtrack in not that long. 

16 Responses to “Opening Titles and Song: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)”

  1. 70srichard

    Oh boy do hit the nail on the head. What beautiful poetry you use to describe NYC in that time, I’m going back to re-read it again right now. The music is so great in this opening, and it fits the theme of the city, it is big, brassy and dangerous. This piece you have produced is one of the best descriptions of mood and music I have ever read. You can show this off to anyone and be proud. That we share this film as a touchstone and as art makes me happy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • le0pard13

      Very kind of you to say, Richard. Watching this again, on the Egyptian big screen with you and your daughter, was a highlight of this year’s TCMFF, my friend. 🙂


    • le0pard13

      You’ll get no argument from me, John. Love this film. Will head over shortly to take him that double-feature article. Many thanks. 🙂


  2. JackDeth72

    Excellent piece of definitive works on one of my favorite thrillers of 1974!

    Still vastly superior to its later made for television reboot with Vincent D’Onfrio and Donnie Wahlberg and Denzel Washington’s sad cinematic take on a Classic!

    Liked by 1 person

    • le0pard13

      Y’know, I’ve not seen that D’Onofrio-Wahlberg-James Edward Olmos TV movie remake of this. Heard of it, just not caught up to it. Guess I should make a point of at least doing that — did see Tony Scott’s remake — and yes, nothing is going to surpass Joe Sargent’s ’70s classic. Thanks so much for the comment, Kevin. Much appreciated. 🙂



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