Mr. Blue in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

Lately I’ve watched a lot of 70’s crime movies, where there were no shortage of great villains I thought of writing about: Andrew Robinson as Dirty Harry’s Scorpio Killer, Warren Oates’ celebrity gangster Dillinger, Patrick McGoohan’s sadistic warden in Escape from Alcatraz, Joe Don Baker as scary mob enforcer Molly in Charley Varrick, Jessica Walter as the psycho stalker in Play Misty for Me…

One of the very best villains of this era and genre is Robert Shaw’s Mr. Blue in the classic heist thriller The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). Cruel, cold, and confident Blue is the leader of the subway hijacking gang that ruins the day for Transit Authority Lt. Garber (Walter Matthau).

This is an event focusing on villains, but it’s no fun talking about Shaw’s Blue without looking at the “hero” working to stop him, and the time and place of their cat-and-mouse game. This movie’s terrific tension, character interplay, and fine performances come from setting the calculating, condescending, quiet evil mercenary against the rumpled curmudgeon and everyman Garber in a New York that’s rude, gritty, broke, corrupt, diverse, politically incorrect and falling apart. That atmosphere and attitude provide a great contrast to Mr. Blue’s English accent, restraint, military precision and air of superiority. A foreigner with little backstory or ambiguity (thankfully–a lesson lost in the excess of the 2009 remake), and a robotically methodical, ruthless approach, Blue is unpredictable and easy-to-hate, and his failure all the sweeter because he underestimates the skill, dedication and intelligence of Garber and New Yorkers.

Blue’s a crisp perfectionist who’s thought of every detail, with spare time to calmly work on his crossword puzzle, and he’s intolerant of errors or human flaws in his gang (Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, Earl Hindman). But all that cool precision is outmatched and undone by rogue actions by his henchmen, by unflappable blue-collar ingenuity, experience and pragmatism, by something as ridiculously human as one unforgettable, poorly-timed sneeze. The perfect plan and man are beaten by likably boorish, weary and cynical working stiffs who trade quips, take this inconvenience in stride and just do their jobs.

Facing defeat and imprisonment in a state without a death penalty, Blue ends it. Efficient and to the point as always, he simply says “pity,” and steps on the third rail to electrocute himself (again, better than the showdown of the remake). That leaves one surviving hijacker, Green aka Harold Longman (Balsam), a disgruntled former transit motorman and most sympathetic of the gang; you might even find yourself rooting for him to stifle his sneeze and keep that money hidden under the bed.

This is my post for The Great Villain Blogathon 2017, an event I’m co-hosting with Ruth of Silver Screenings, and Karen of Shadows & Satin. See the many more great movie villains featured via this handy link. 

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26 thoughts on “Mr. Blue in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)”

  1. Whoa! This sounds like a MUST SEE movie. The story sounds incredible tense – I was feeling anxious just reading your review! Plus, what an incredible cast. I can only imagine how terrific Robert Shaw is in this role. Happily, a person can stream it online, which is what I plan to do.

    Also, thanks for being a terrific co-host in this blogathon, as always. 🙂

    1. Oh it certainly is a MUST, one of my fav. movies– please check it out, and I’m not normally one to remake-bash, but yeah, you can’t beat the original in this case. Everyone is well cast and like I say the grit and attitude add so much to the recipe.

      Likewise to you and Karen, wonderful co-hosts for this fun event, thanks!!

    1. Isn’t it great? Super cast, first-rate acting, memorable moments, it never gets old no matter how often you watch. Thanks for reading!

  2. Great choice! Shaw was perfect for that role and although we don’t know much of Mr. Blue’s backstory, his character tells us everything we need to know. Now I want to watch this all over again!

    1. Exactly, I’m not a fan of the over-explaining, unnecessary ambiguity and excess of the remake. Less is more, for sure, especially with actors like this.

  3. Nicely written up, Kristina, and an excellent choice of film and villain within that movie. I never tire of watching this one, which is no mean feat for a story that’s so plot-driven and dependent on the payoff. The fact the characterizations are so strong means the mystery aspect ceases to be the be all and end all. Anyway, a superb movie.
    Gesundheit!

    1. Bless you! [insert Matthau’s gotcha face] That’s right, the interaction and the characters are so rewarding they always feel fresh on every rewatch. Ironically the smaller scale and stakes of the original–one million and little danger to the rest of the city–make for bigger, better tension than the post-9/11 remake. Thanks!

  4. Great movie with Shaw a superior villain. Joseph Sargent’s direction is so tight that the movie never slows down for a second and he makes the pulse of rumpled, rough New York City a part of the film. It’s almost another character in the film.

    Matthau drives the film but he’s surrounded by great character actors, including all the bad guys, that make the film feel real and organic. The remake is just another action movie devoid of the individuality of this.

    1. Yes, well said. The gumption and toughness of New Yorkers and the city is so well done that Blue never had a chance. The casting is so good and it’s sad how nowadays you rarely see such fascinating faces and older actors, featured in big action movies.

  5. As my late dad was a NYC subway motorman (who pointed out all the film got right and a few minor things it didn’t), this one was a fave for decades and still is. Definitely one of the best ‘shot in NYC’ films of the 70’s, great score, plenty of excellent performances and yep, that ending is a “hold your breath” slice of brilliance. Yeah, I wanted that sneeze held as well, I’ll admit. The remake just… annoyed me.

    1. That’s a fun personal connection. Remake goes to show that less is more, you can’t beat the realism and grit of the original, plus Matthau and Stiller have some super lines and reactions. Love the mayor too, and how they know he’s coming by all the boos, nice cross-section of New Yorkers with the passengers, just fun detail all through. Thanks!

    1. Thanks, such a fun group to watch and return to over the years, these people are the comfort food of actors 🙂 and the authenticity takes you right to the NYC of the 70s.

  6. I finally saw this movie last year. What a great bunch of thieves in it. I have not bothered with the remake. Every time I look to try I bring up thoughts of “Swordfish” “Battlefield Earth” “Broken Arrow” and “Michael” crappy stuff he made after “Pulp Fiction” when I had a renewed faith in his acting ability… Robert Shaw never made a crappy movie, at least not one that I’ve seen.

    1. Great isn’t it? I only recently saw the remake and it’s an ok action movie but a real letdown compared to this, no moments as memorable. True about Robert Shaw, close to this I watched Black Sunday, check that out if you haven’t. Thanks!

  7. Can you believe I’ve never seen this movie? I think I missed the 70s (I worked a lot all during those years). Never seen The French Connection and other classic films from the era. I need to get cracking!

  8. Great choice! Robert Shaw actually plays two of my favorite villains (the other being Doyle Lonnegan).

    The sneeze and Matthau’s reaction have to be on the list for best endings.

    1. Trust me, this is anything but sluggish– great tension and these fine performances. Give it a try sometime and see if it isn’t one of the better endings you’ve ever seen. Thanks!

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