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Posted: June 17, 2009

Dave on film: Subway trains and silent film stars, oh my!

Reviews of "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" and the 1950 classic "Sunset Boulevard"

Dave Taylor

One of the films I was most anticipating this summer is a remake of a brilliant 1974 film that starred everyman Walter Matthau. That was about it for movies drawing me to the cinema this week, so I then flipped on Turner Classic Movies and caught one of the best films ever made, a black-and-white movie that¹s all about lost dreams and the people left behind by the march of progress.

Buckled in, arms inside the car?  Let¹s go!

"The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3"

The premise is goofy, really: A group of criminals hijack a subway train underneath Manhattan. How the heck are they going to escape?  Or maybe they don¹t even want to escape? In the 1974 film "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" Robert Shaw is superb as the criminal mastermind who coolly explains to subway track controller Walter Matthau exactly what he wants, even as we¹re all trying to figure out the plan because, heck, they¹re trapped in a tunnel, how on earth are they going to get away with the crime?

Zoom forward to 2009 and action director Tony Scott¹s remake, with the slightly different title "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3". It stars John Travolta in the bad guy role and Denzel Washington as the track controller working for the transit authority. Problem is, neither of them really seem to have their hearts in their roles and are dispassionate when they should be highly engaged, leaving viewers detached from what should be a thrilling action film.

Worse, the malaise seems to have spread throughout everyone on set, and I¹ve never seen a less scared group of hostages in a film, even as they witness Travolta shoot two people in cold blood without a hint of remorse. Me? I¹d be shaking in my boots, but all I can conclude is that New Yorkers are so used to violence that they can remain blasé throughout.

The film devolves into a three-cut, with Travolta on the subway train, Washington in the transit authority facility and various police cars careening through the streets of New York (because it¹s not until two-thirds of the way through the movie that the NYPD remember they have helicopters, for some odd reason), and there are definitely some great shots and exciting sequences. It¹s all with Tony Scott¹s trademark shaky camera work, which gets tiring, but still, if you don¹t mind that it¹s Just Another Hollywood Action Film, "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" might be a good summer movie for you.

"Sunset Boulevard"


To remember how a truly brilliant film is assembled and acted, however, I also this week watched director Billy Wilder¹s 1950 film about the Hollywood celebrities left behind when silent movies transitioned to talkies. It¹s the same topic that Stanley Donen addressed two years later in the delightful "Singing in the Rain," but here it¹s a more lyrical poem to the desire each of us have to live within our fantasies rather than the cold, harsh light of reality.

In the film, unsuccessful hack writer William Holden is on the run, trying to hide from thugs the bank has sent to repossess his car when he stumbles into the aging, decrepit mansion of Gloria Swanson. She's a forgotten silent movie star who lives in a dream that her fans want to see her back on the big screen and that it¹s just a matter of finding the right script for her to have a successful comeback. Erich von Stroheim completes the cast, as Swanson¹s butler and companion who carefully stage-manages Swanson¹s world so that she can remain complacent in her belief that the audience awaits her return.

This is a dark, moody film with a number of interesting cameos, including Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton and Cecil B. DeMille himself, and the closing scene is one of the most famous in cinema, with the immortal line "All right, Mr. DeMille, I¹m ready for my close-up now."  The context of that line isn¹t what you expect, however, and this is truly one of the most amazing, profound and thought-provoking films that¹s every come out of Hollywood. Highly recommended.

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Dave Taylor has been watching movies for as long as he can remember. Along the way he’s become a nationally recognized expert on technology, an accomplished writer, and award-winning public speaker and blogger. You can find his film writing at  www.DaveOnFilm.com and follow his film commentary on Twitter at @FilmBuzz or just email him at taylor@intuitive.com.

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