A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
The notion sounds crazy to begin with. Four armed criminals hijack a subway train and hold 18 hostages. They're surrounded by dozens of cops, they're in a tunnel with no way out, and how do you hide a subway train? "They're gonna fly it to Cuba," one cop speculates. Walter Matthau has a better idea: “They're gonna get away by asking every man, woman and child in New York City to close their eyes and count to a hundred."
In fact, they've got a pretty neat plan. It's been coordinated by Robert Shaw who plays a former mercenary soldier. His team members include two professional criminals and a fired motorman (Martin Balsam) with a grudge. They separate the car from the rest of the train and radio their demands to the dispatcher; $1 million in one hour, or a passenger will be killed every minute.
When “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” first appeared as a novel, I avoided it on the reasonable grounds that (a) there was no plausible way to hijack a subway train, and (b) if there was, it would be so obvious it wouldn't be interesting. The movie's plot inclines towards (b). The gang has a good, sound plan, not too complicated, and they almost get away with it. But the movie's appeal -- which is considerable -- doesn't depend on the plan or on the easily foreseeable plot.
It depends instead on a nice feel for New York City and some fine, detailed performances. Walter Matthau is gruff, shaggy and sardonic as a Transit Authority lieutenant; Robert Shaw is clipped and cruel, and the supporting performances are allowed to grow and take on personality. These aren't machine-made genre characters, but individuals (and, more specifically, New Yorkers with gallows humor, paranoia, warmth and resiliency).