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.