Recently remade (which will be reviewed in due course), this 1974 thriller is solid and well-made, adopting a typically-cynical Noo Yawk attitood to the hijacking of a subway train by "Mr. Blue" (Shaw, sporting a nice British accent). For instance, in this semi-serious line delivered by a railway supervisor, aggrieved by the chaos the hostage situation is causing to the network: "Screw the goddamn passengers! What the hell did they expect for their lousy 35 cents - to live forever?" It's up to transit police lieutenant Zachary Garber (Matthau), not only to defuse the situation, but work out how the perpetrators expect to escape with their ransom, from a tunnel sealed off at both ends by the heavily-armed forces of the law. And the clock is ticking, and ticking fast, since Blue and his color co-ordinated criminal colleagues (yep, chalk up another idea shamelessly pinched by Quentin Tarantino) have only given him an hour to get a million dollars in cash from the city, and down into the tunnel.
Even though Matthau and Shaw only have one scene together, there's a nice adversarial sense to the relationship between the two, as they jostle for psychological advantage over the train intercom. It's clear from the start that Blue has a plan, intends to stick to it, and while he'd rather not kill anyone unless necessary, he will do so if the need arises. He's smart, sane and ruthless, a very dangerous trifecta for a criminal, and that helps make him a credible adversary for Garber, who is made to seem equally intelligent. In some ways, it is a product of its time - the attitude towards women is so Neanderthal, as to make me think it was a Life on Mars episode - and I can thus see why it would becom a targer for a remake. However, that fails to distract from a well-written script that hits the ground running, and doesn't pause much from there to the final shot of the film. The remake will certainly have its work cut out to be much of an improvement.