The story, for those who don't know, is about a gang of four men who hatch a well-constructed plan to hijack a New York Subway train, holding those on-board hostage, threatening to kill them if the city don't cough up a million dollars - pronto! Time is critical and makes the edge-of-the-seat thrills even more suspenseful!
Thoughts of Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs which borrowed the idea of colourful characters - Mr Blue, Mr Green, Mr Grey and Mr Brown. (Though no Mr Pink to be argued about!) The main two leads, later taken by Washington and Travolta, are superbly executed here by Robert Shaw, ruthless ex-military Brit, and Walter Matthau, inexperienced negotiator and Subway cop.
There are loads of names in the cast - and faces that you'll recognise including Martin Balsam (All the President's Men, Murder on the Orient Express), Hector Elizondo (American Gigolo, The Fan) and Earl Hindman (The Equalizer, Silverado) as the other three gang members. Sadly, Elizondo is the only surviving actor of these leads. It is certainly a case of spot-the-star though - either present for then or future.
Matthau injects a level of fun and humour to his role as he tries to hold things together, leaping from wise-cracker to negotiator by the minute. The control room from where this happens is like a scene from Airplane! with people milling about, small asides and quips which can easily be missed - second viewing recommended! And the Mayor - he could have come straight from the set of Blazing Saddles!
There's also a splattering of characters being held as hostage in the train. Wise-cracking New Yorkers, token cowards, a drunk woman who sleeps through the whole thing, screaming brats and cocky dudes. In these respects, the film has more of a light tone than the aforementioned remake which seemed more serious in approach.
As the plot unfolds though and focuses on the gang, we get to see just how serious it all becomes as Shaw demonstrates that he's not to be messed with and through twists and turns in the storyline takes decisive action. Then there's the chase to get the money to the gang as the city comes to a halt and bank clerks pull all the stops out to get the money, then cops race to the location in cars, motorbikes and trucks! Stuff goes wrong, of course and the deadline looms! It's really quite thrilling stuff.
Then there's the finale, which I won't spoil for you as, like me, you may have forgotten, more twists and turns and a final scene which adds even more suspense and humour! It all adds up to a cracking thriller with fabulous performances from everyone. Beautifully directed to add to the tension by Joseph Sargent with supporting music moving between the thrill of the ride to mellow piano and much between.
I'm off to re-watch the 2009 remake now to see what I have forgotten about that too - and how it compares. In the meantime, track this 1974 original pearl down!