It was all about the sneeze.

In this modern age of special effects, far-out concepts and super-twist endings, it is refreshing to see an old movie reaching its pulsating climax with something as simple as an old man sneezing. Ah, they don’t make them like this anymore.

The Taking of Pelham 123 is quite simply a gem from another time. A fast-moving thriller detailing the cat and mouse confrontation played out between a group of four criminals who hijack a New York subway train and the wily old transit cop determined to stop them, Joseph Sargent’s 1974 classic is a relentless mix of tension, action, suspence and black humour.

Having been a fan of the movie from a young age, I was delighted to discover that a special one-off screening was coming to the Prince Charles Cinema off Leicester Square recently and had no hesitation in heading into town for a welcome re-watch of this cult favourite.

This much-imitated heist movie (I had no interest in the recent Denzil Washington/John Travolta remake) stars Robert Shaw as the ruthless leader of a gang of hijackers who seize control of a subway train before demanding a $1 million ransom. If the fee is not paid within an hour, they will kill off one hostage for every extra minute they are kept waiting.

In stark contrast to Shaw’s ice cold master criminal, Walter Matthau gives an almost comedic performance as the Columbo-like detective slowly (sometimes, painfully slowly) trying to bring him down.

The scenes in which the two rivals attempt to break each other during exchanges over the transit radio system are among the film’s highlights – of which there are many.

This is cult, pulpish cinema of the highest order and, like similar classics of the genre such as The French Connection, Dirty Harry and the underrated Roy Scheider actioner The Seven-Ups, it is a study in effectiveness and simplicity.

From the incredibly basic opening titles sequence, which allows David Shire’s ultra-funky score (one of the quintessential 1970s theme tunes) to flourish, to the rough-looking offices of the transit workers, nothing is glamourised or over-stated.

Pelham has clearly had a major influence on crime thrillers that have emerged in the years since. The robbers refer to each other in names based upon colours (Mr Grey, Mr Brown, Mr Blue and Mr Green), a formula copied by Quentin Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs.

The type of gritty scenes in which the two main characters on either side of the law bicker on opposite ends of a radio/telephone line is also a hallmark of the heist genre.

However, it is the simplicity of the (somewhat unlikely) conclusion to the movie that is the main talking point. I don’t want to give it away completely (indeed, it has to be seen to be believed), but it doesn’t involve any flashy effects, beguiling imagery or nerve-shredding suspense. Just an old man sneezing.

And the final shot of the film is an absolute gem, as Matthau does his best basset hound impression to show us all that he’s finally cracked the case.

About The Author

Simon Fitzjohn

Simon is a journalism tutor in London, who also just happens to be a movie fanatic, with a craving for the darker side of cinema. He has written two books, one on the horror films of director Bob Clark (2014) and the other on the history of the character Norman Bates (2015). His third book, on the work of British exploitation director Pete Walker, is due in 2017.