By Seth Shire
“Ford to City: Drop Dead—New York in the 70s” is a movie series playing at Film Forum now through July 27. The 70s, considered to be the last golden age of American cinema, is filled with some of my favorite movies, many of which were shot in New York. The titles in this series include “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Saturday Night Fever,” “The Taking of Pelham 123” and many others.
On the one hand, this is a series tailor made for me. On the other hand, since I already own many of these movies on DVD, why should I pay to see them in a movie theater? Still, as a practical matter, how often do I actually watch the movies that I have on DVD? I think it’s an existential issue. In other words, having lots of movies on DVD means that I have the possibility of watching them, even if the reality is that I rarely watch them. This is the dilemma presented to the movie aficionado in the digital age, in which almost everything is available at his, or her, fingertips. Had home video and all its variations – VHS, laser disc, DVD, Blu-Ray, streaming – not been invented, then Film Forum’s series would be a “no-brainer” for me. Of course I would go. So saying I won’t see a particular film when it plays in a theater because I have it on a DVD that I almost never watch means running the risk of not seeing the film at all!
To sweeten the pot, Film Forum is showing many of the films in this series, on, well, film – 35mm film. There was a time when it was just a given that any movie shown in a movie theater would be presented on 35mm film. Now, with movie theaters projecting films digitally, seeing a movie on 35mm film has become something of a rarity. Even Film Forum itself has, to a certain degree, gone the digital route by showing gorgeous 4K restorations of older movies, which I think is great.
On Sunday, June 16, I attended a screening of the original 1974 version of “The Taking of Pelham 123,” presented in a beautiful 35mm print. This film is a real favorite of mine. In fact, its poster hangs in my living room.
So what was the lure? “The Taking of Pelham 123” included a very informative pre-screening presentation by Bruce Goldstein, Film Forum’s Director of Repertory Programming. Goldstein used various film clips to show how accurate the movie is in depicting New York City geography, something which, he pointed out, many films do not always do.
The mayor (played by Lee Wallace) in the “Taking of Pelham 123,” is a bumbling buffoon and a dead ringer for Mayor Ed Koch. I had always assumed that this was an intentional, satirical choice on the part of the filmmakers. Goldstein showed a video clip, shot at Film Forum in 1993, of the film’s screenwriter, Peter Stone, introducing the movie. Stone explained that the mayor’s resemblance to Koch was purely coincidental, as at the time the movie was shot, Koch was still a congressman. Stone added that Koch was not elected mayor until three years after the film was made. Koch himself was in the clip too, along with Stone, to introduce that screening.
Seeing “The Taking of Pelham 123” with an appreciative New York audience, for me, really emphasized the film’s sharply written and “on target” dialogue. Lines at which I may have chuckled at on the DVD carried a whole other emphasis when a few hundred people were laughing at them.
The story, about four men who hijack a subway car and hold its passengers for ransom, is, admittedly, far-fetched. What has always made me get on this “ride” of a movie, though, is not just its dialogue, but the performances by the film’s great New York actors playing iconic, “only in New York” character-types. The cast includes Walter Matthau, Martin Balsam, Jerry Stiller, Tony Roberts, Robert Shaw, Hector Elizondo and lots of terrific supporting actors, all of whom ground the story in the reality of the 70s.
I also appreciated composer David Shire’s (no relation) jazz score. The music contributes so much to the film’s mood, story telling and suspense.
So after this experience, will I be throwing out my DVD of “The Taking of Pelham 123” any time soon? Absolutely not, but I will keep in mind the value and unique experience of going to see older films at important organizations, like Film Forum, that preserve the communal, non-streaming, movie going experience. Hey, even a hard-bitten critic like me needs an occasional reminder!
Film Forum is located at 209 West Houston Street (west of Sixth Avenue). For more information, visit www.filmforum.org.