Friday, June 12, 2009

New Film: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)

Tony Scott's The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, from a Brian Helgeland screenplay, enlarges the case for its helmer as the living embodiment of the auteur theory, without also reaching the heights of the director's finest recent work, or even that of the film's highly entertaining 1974 namesake, from television director (and as far as this writer can speculate, non-auteur) Joseph Sargent. That Scott's latest might be compared unfavorably - in many, but certainly not all respects - to the original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, demonstrates the inadequacy of the theory as an automatic generator of quality, without foreclosing against its ability to delineate discrete artistic interventions. Scott is indeed in the midst of what is unmistakably his major artistic period, of which his Pelham 1 2 3 is the latest example, without again attaining the same level as Enemy of the State (1998), Domino (2005), or the director's masterpiece, and one of the great American films of the decade about to conclude, Déjà Vu (2006). Yet for those inclined to the auteurist project of uncovering a discernible artistic presence in the director's chair, Scott's Pelham 1 2 3 will not disappoint, and will be for some, invigorating cinema.

Departing from the original in its relatively ersatz treatment of its New York setting - Sargent's near documentary emphasis on location in the 1974 Pelham One Two Three, by comparison, permitted its spectator to follow the action from station to station along the Lexington Ave. 6-train line - Scott's film rather adopts this location more for what it gets the narrative than for any local inspiration from the setting. (Scott is not another Spike Lee in this respect, with the key similarities between this film and Inside Man [2006], as film scholar Lisa K. Broad points out, aside.) What it allows for is the co-presence of the film's subway car hostage situation - with its status as a terrorist event contested, but ultimately affirmed by the film - and the nearby markers of the American financial system. Whereas Déjà Vu conjugated September 11th with the Oklahoma City bombing of the mid-90s and Hurricane Katrina (I will have much more to say about this film in the current issue of Film Criticism), Pelham 1 2 3 adds the financial sector crisis of 2008-2009 to the personal experience of terrorism shared by the passengers of United flight 93. If the inclusion of a financial sector meltdown signals the eclipse of interest in domestic terrorism for many Americans by the economy, the Anglo Scott nonetheless almost doggedly refuses to forget this decade's defining moment of trauma. His is a much more complete picture of contemporary America than most critics will be willing to concede or even intuit - in spite of its patched together portrait of the Five Boroughs.

Importantly, Scott's New York no longer experiences the surveillance of Enemy of the State's Washington, in its malignant form, nor Déjà Vu's New Orleans in its more benign variety, read into this what you will - perhaps that Americans no longer fear surveillance, though the director does visualize the abducted subway through a web cam conversation, which is the film's most direct attempt at transcribing newish technologies. Then again, there is likewise very little social or technological commentary in Sargent's original - on this basis one could argue for the superiority of Scott's film - save for its portrait of a rather impotent mayor figure; par for the course, certainly, when representing political figures circa 1974. Scott's Pelham 1 2 3 briefly pokes fun at Giuliani's crisis response without exactly providing a positive counter-example in James Gandolfini's philandering incarnation.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 does however shares Scott's previous masterpiece's Christian context, which thanks to Helgeland's screenplay perhaps, takes on a Catholic inflection - as did also the director's 2004, Helgeland-scripted Man on Fire. With explicit mention made of Ryder's (John Travolta) Catholic background - in discussions of original sin (Scott's film does admit the sinfulness of all its protagonists and antagonists) and confessionals - with the concluding cross shape visible over Denzel Washington's shoulder, and the latter's need to redeem himself through a selfless good work, Scott once again, though with a different screenwriter than the tandem he used for Déjà Vu, produces a Christian allegory out of his terror-inspired subject. And as with the earlier film, a new life will be offered to one of the film's characters. While in Déjà Vu this required the re-writing of the past, of "fate" through its science fiction conceit, Scott and Helgeland have effectively classicized their solution in Pelham 1 2 3.

Of course, the term 'classical' should as always be used sparingly and with reservations when discussing the films of Scott. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is certainly no exception with its rapid editing and cross-cutting, its frequent use of slow motion (with variable mimetic precision; this is one of many respects in which Déjà Vu proves the exceedingly superior work) and zooms, the film's tight close-ups filling half of the frame before very shallow depth, its manipulation of the color palette and its combination of pop music (the throbbing refrain of "99 Problems" is the first) and highly effective scoring. Scott's cinema exemplifies David Bordwell's "intensified continuity" every bit as much as it does the auteur theory introduced at the outset.


Matt Singer said...


I haven't seen DEJA VU yet -- after such a gauntlet-throwing I feel like I have to, and I promise I will -- but I posted your remarks to Twitter, asking how nuts on a scale of 1 to 10 you were for claiming it's one of the best American films of the decade. You didn't get much support (outside Ben Kenigsberg from Time Out Chicago noting that a few other respected critics share your view). I did like James Rocchi's response: "8, but ... TWICE! (Dunh dunh)"

On to your reading of THE RETAKING OF PELHAM 123, which I have seen. You observe that a comparison to the original (and, in my view, superior) PELHAM "demonstrates the inadequacy of the [auteur] theory as an automatic generator of quality, without foreclosing against its ability to delineate discrete artistic interventions." Very true; and I think you make some interesting points in that regard. This auteurist reading also evidently permits you to ignore seemingly important matters like the fact that the film's final reel is one of the most utterly idiotic I've seen in any new film in many a month. We probably don't want to spoil it here, but I would hope you'd agree that the ending here isn't merely unsatisfying (except perhaps on those auteurist levels), it's downright absurd.

I also felt like Scott's distinctive visual tics -- the flash frames, the stutter-shutter effect, the shallow-focus closeups -- took something away from the action sequences. At times, I felt like he was so focused on being stylish he forgot to be exciting as well. So much of the movie is about speed: speeding trains, and cars, and helicopters, and so many of those sequences are shot in ways that slow those things down. I felt no visceral thrill from any of them. I wonder if you agree and, if you do, whether you can argue for that on Scott's behalf.

Michael J. Anderson said...

It's been far too long since you have taken me to task for one of my pieces, Matt. I really need to regain the semi-irresponsible touch of my "Flags of the Fathers"/"The Departed" post.

"This auteurist reading also evidently permits you to ignore seemingly important matters like the fact that the film's final reel is one of the most utterly idiotic I've seen in any new film in many a month."

I don't think you are entirely wrong here. Obviously it doesn't quite work, and certainly in comparison to the exceptional denouement of the 1974 original, it is lacking indeed. However, I wasn't really thinking so much about the quality at this point, but rather how Scott might pull of his now trademark resurrection. This and I was trying to ignore the rubes in the back row who were, in full voice, wondering if he had remembered to bring home the milk.

Speaking of the 1974 ending, and beware there will be a spoiler in this paragraph, did you see former colleague "Mank's" unaccountable spoiler on the show: there is a lot of sneezing in this film (wah, wah)? Yes Ben, you get the joke!! Who cares if you ruin it for everybody else... you get the joke!!

But, to return my piece, the point was not to say how good or bad it is, but to explain how Scott's choices might be understood in the context of his other work. Really, it was an attempt at explanation rather than a defense, though given that I am a Tony Scott fan, my exegesis automatically verges toward the sympathetic. I guess the danger in this would be that the viewer might expect more than the film delivers, but I would also guess my piece will only really convince viewers who want to see the film but need some sort of alibi to do so. So, my critical oversight, which again I see to be beside the point of my piece, really is of a miniscule consequence.

Matt Singer said...


It HAS been too long; lately it seems our moviegoing paths rarely cross.

And I see your point; it's the very same one I often use when discussing late career Arnold Schwarzenegger movies like END OF DAYS or COLLATERAL DAMAGE which are terrible entertainments but are absolutely fascinating within the larger context of Arnie's career. But I'll be the first to admit those movies are pretty crummy, and you are clinging to that Tony Scott man-crush just a wee bit too hard.

And regarding the new PELHAM's ending, it may have permitted a resurrection for the Wahsington character but it did so at the expense of any believability the movie had to that point. If you can honestly say that the shot of John Turturro right after the big finale didn't make you groan, I will retract ALL my complaints.

Anonymous said...

I have not seen this new and completely uncalled-for remake of the very uninteresting "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3", but I wonder how can be "the living embodiment of the auteur theory" a filmmaker such as Tony Scott (or, for that matter, his brother Ridley Scott), which obviously is (are) not film authors at all? - even if they probably have more control over their most of their films (as part-producers) than did most of the time Nicholas Ray, Anthony Mann, Orson Welles, Budd Boetticher or John Ford, even some of the time Otto Preminger, Samuel Fuller, Howard Hawks or Alfred Hitchcock. Because the same as writing the story and the script does not make of a director the author of the films he writes and directs, producing them is not enough either, and both Scotts will remain (since it pays them well) mere illustrators of concocted and impersonal screenplays whose only point in common is that they can serve as launching pads for pyrotechnic or digital effects.
Miguel Marías

Michael J. Anderson said...

Dear Miguel,

The whole point with Tony Scott is that there is a consistent set of thematic concerns, whether personal or not I cannot say, that have continued to recur for the past decade of his work. (See Christoph Huber and Mark Peranson's fine CINEMASCOPE appreciation for a more comprehensive overview than I managed in this short piece: His films do demonstrate differing degrees of feeling, however, which insures, among other factors, that a DEJA VU is a masterpiece while something like PELHAM 123 is less significant, if no less the product of the same maker, and yes I would say auteur.

The purpose in calling Scott the living embodiment of the theory is to (provocatively, of course) place Scott as inheritor of that Hollywood end of the theory, the portion that Truffaut and others intuited in corpuses that held together without the their maker's credited participation as screenwriters (hence the Hitchcock comparison in the piece I cited). Naturally there are scores of filmmakers the world over who can more fully claim the title today - any number of Cannes or Venice-feted international art house directors would readily fit the bill; take a look at this site, I write about these films all the time - but the utility of a Tony Scott is in underscoring the continued usefulness of this other side of the theory, that part that is not proscriptive, but rather appears where we least expect it.

I do further agree with Huber and Peranson that Ridley Scott's body of work doesn't compare to his brother's.

Lastly, though I encouraged some degree of animus here, I would like to compliment you nonetheless, Mr. Marias, on your writings on Mikio Naruse. I own a copy of the Filmoteca Espanola volume on the director - my prized possession of film scholarship - and have benefited a great deal from its essays over the years. Now there is an auteur, someone for whom feeling is never in question, I think we can both agree.