Anatomy of a Soundtrack | The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three (1974) – David Shire

The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three isn’t one of the better known crime films of the 1970s. It is probably best known for inspiring the colour-coded naming of the villains in Reservoir Dogs.

That it isn’t one of the better known films of its genre from its decade is hardly the fault of the film itself. After all, this was a decade where The Godfather, The Godfather Part 2, The French Connection, Death Wish, Dog Day Afternoon, Dirty Harry, Chinatown, Mean Streets, The Getaway and many others were produced and released – and those were just a selection of what Hollywood had to offer. There were also burgeoning crime film scenes in the UK, Italy and Japan in particular. It was a truly great decade for the genre.
As such, a lot of films rather undeservedly didn’t quite receive the attention they deserved with some of them still remaining relatively undiscovered to this day. While The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three was and is critically very highly thought of, and has been the recipient of two separate remakes, it’s still rarely thought of as one of the big names when it comes to 1970s crime capers.
One thing that notably connects all the films listed above is the quality of their soundtracks. Almost each and every one of those films have recognisable and outstanding scores that were arguably integral to the quality and success of them. The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three was no different – but with it getting slightly lost in the shuffle, so, therefore, did the soundtrack. Again, this was undeserved.
David Shire’s magnificent work did receive some recognition. He was nominated for a BAFTA award in 1976 for Best Film Music, but it was as close to major recognition as he got for his work on Joseph Sargent’s film. Yet Shire’s work is every bit as vital to the film’s tempo, tone and key scenes as any of the films listed above or any others you could care to name.
1974 would prove to be the breakthrough year for Shire. Having already turned a few heads with his work on Steelyard Blues, this year would also see him craft the wonderful soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. He would then gain further acclaim for his work on All The President’s Men before he showed his versatility in the 80s with delightful work on Return To Oz, Short Circuit and Vice Versa.
With The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three, the mood is established right away with Shire’s marvellously panicky and multi-layered arrangement over the films opening titles. Menacing basslines fight it out with loud bursts of horns and ever-changing uses of percussion to create an immediate air of tension and unpredictability that perfectly match the film you are about to watch. They also, arguably, match the energetic unpredictability of the city in which the film is set.
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The stage is set immediately and rightly so as the film wastes no time in getting going. Just a few minutes later Robert Shaw and pals will have seized the titular train in this scene.
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Here, Shire’s ingenious stop-start music mirrors the confusion of the driver at being told that his train is being taken. Then it slowly builds as Shaw’s friends assume their positions and the threat to the passengers is established. Shire rounds this scene off with a nervewracking clattering of drums as a very lucky man walks away from a train he will be glad that he missed.
The soundtrack is actually quite a sparse one. Shire was hired quite late and wasn’t given a huge amount of time to work with and the amount of music he contributes only adds up to around half an hour for a film clocking in at over three times that amount. In some ways this works in his favour. When the music starts up again, it actually feels like it matters.
He still finds time for the odd quieter moment. As armed police congregate in the tunnel around the hijacked train, Shire inserts some quieter scoring. Here he covers a conversation between Shaw and Martin Balsam where we learn a bit more about their backgrounds as we nervously wait to see if the city of New York will be able to stump up the $1 million that is being demanded.
To paraphrase and slightly borrow a line from Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction, he also knows when to shut the hell up. He understands when a scene has enough of a dramatic racket happening to not need further enhancement with scoring. So as New York City’s finest try a breakneck race across the city to deliver the money before Shaw starts wiping out some of the hostages, Shire’s score is nowhere to be heard.
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Yet moments before that, during a terrific montage scene where we see the money hurriedly being counted, Shire throws us another frantic segment of music to illustrate the urgency of what could seem to be a fairly mundane act. The film climaxes with a slightly more relaxed version of his opening theme.
Speaking as someone who would rank the film as one of my favourite ten films of all time, a recommendation to all reading that you should go and see it immediately will hardly be a surprise. It’s currently streaming on Netflix, to my huge surprise. Apparently they do have some films on there made before 2005. You may well find that the soundtrack is well worth the £15 they’re asking for it on Amazon as well. I’d say it is.