One of the decade’s great defenses of New York. (Annie Hall, in a different way, is another.) The joke finds a hijacked subway car stilled underground as the city’s choleric vibes ("Why don’t you grab a goddamn airplane like everyone else!") swirl above. The passengers taken hostage barely bat an eye when four guys in trenchcoats, specs, mustaches and color-coded monikers creep aboard, titters are heard until they’re convinced that, yeah yeah, their machine-guns are real. Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), the European mastermind, lays out the demands: $1 million in one hour or people start dying. The negotiator is a sardonic lieutenant (Walter Matthau) who takes a break from chaperoning (and insulting) visiting Japanese officials to play ringmaster in the urban revue that follows. Shaw’s Continental velvet (he was a British mercenary in Africa until "the marked dried up") matches beautifully with Matthau’s rumpled deadpan, the police approach the seized train between them: "I feel like I’m walking into the fucking O.K. Corral." Seventies political skepticism colors Peter Stone’s salty screenplay, from cracks about Vietnam to a Mayor (Lee Wallace) who weighs ransom money in votes and shares flu sniffles with Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), a disgruntled ex-city employee. Joseph Sargent grounds his visions of subterranean anxiety on the best models (Lang’s Manhunt, Fleischer’s Trapped, Mann’s He Walked by Night), his acerbic kineticism around tunnels, control rooms and clogged streets outclasses Friedkin’s. The air of free-floating crankiness ("Screw the goddamn passengers! What the hell did they expect for their lousy 35 cents, to live forever?" bellows one Mr. Warmth) enriches suspense and comedy alike, and emerges as the push-pull essence of democracy. It blows the fireworks and segues into a face-off between working-class schlubs in a shabby apartment, a wry endnote to another full New Yorker day. Cinematography by Owen Roizman. Music by David Shire. With Hector Elizondo, Earl Hindman, Jerry Stiller, James Broderick, Dick O’Neill, Tom Pedi, Kenneth McMillian, Doris Roberts, Julius Harris, and Tony Roberts.
--- Fernando F. Croce