It's all in the sneeze. If you want to know why 1970s thrillers are so much better than their counterparts today, you just need to pay attention to the part that flu and coughing play in the original The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974), the film that has now been remade by Tony Scott with Denzel Washington and John Travolta in roles first filled by Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw.
In the original, spluttering and sniffing are to the fore. The film-makers don't rely on the visual pyrotechnics that characterise Scott's movie, in which the camera never seems able to stay still for more than a moment. Instead, key plot points are conveyed in far more subtle fashion. Who needs a line of dialogue or a final-reel shootout when you can have a character giving himself away by blowing into a handkerchief? What better way to depict a corrupt and ineffectual mayor than to show him in bed with flu, being scolded by a nurse?
In hindsight, the 1970s looks like a golden age for the American thriller. This was the era of such Don Siegel movies as Charley Varrick and Dirty Harry; of William Friedkin's The French Connection and Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway; of Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor, John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 and Robert Aldrich's Hustle.
It is understandable that contemporary film-makers want to remake Seventies thrillers. They hanker after the depth of characterisation and the mix of menace and humour that underlay the best films from that decade. The Getaway has already been re-made (with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger in 1994) as has Assault on Precinct 13 (in 2005, with Ethan Hawke.) There has long been talk of a Dirty Harry remake. (At one stage, Duayne "The Rock" Johnson was linked with the old Clint Eastwood role of Harry Callahan.)
Most of the Seventies films had a grimy realism about them. Their protagonists invariably had their noses rubbed in the dirt. Sam Peckinpah took a perverse pleasure in showing Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw – the Brad and Angelina of the day – covered in detritus in a garbage truck in The Getaway. During the making of The Taking of Pelham 123, Robert Shaw and co, playing the hijackers of a New York transit train, worked long days on location on a New York subway line.
As Shaw's biographer John French noted: "There were rats everywhere and every time someone jumped from the train, or tripped over the lines, clouds of black dust rose into the air, making it impossible to shoot until it had settled." At the end of a day's work, the dust-encrusted actors looked as if they had been mining for coal.
In many of the Seventies films, the actors themselves had a battered, shop-worn quality about them that their modern-day equivalents can't match. In Tony Scott's remake of Pelham 123, John Travolta makes a game attempt at portraying a hijacker. As Ryder, he is bearded and grizzled and seems a blue-collar figure (although we later discover that he is a disgraced banker.) Denzel Washington, meanwhile, looks a little more jowly than usual as the subway dispatcher Walter Garber.
Nonetheless, we're always aware that we're watching movie stars slumming it. Travolta and Washington can't shake off their action-hero pasts, even if they do get a little dirty in the New York subway tunnels. Certainly, neither is a patch on Walter Matthau, who plays the grumpy subway cop in the original.
Matthau was a natural screen curmudgeon: a scowling, stooped, long-nosed figure who – as the New York Times put it in an admiring obituary – "usually looked as if he had been sleeping in his clothes", whatever role he was playing. In Pelham 123, when he is negotiating over the radio for the safekeeping of the hostages in the train, he is terse and cynical but pragmatic too. His prejudices are self-evident (not least when he is calling Japanese visitors "monkeys" to their face, blissfully unaware that they speak perfect English). For all his crusty obnoxiousness, we know he is doing his best to save the hostages. By contrast, Denzel Washington in the remake is made into a much more sympathetic (and therefore far less interesting) character. We are lumbered with details about his private life: we hear him promising his wife he'll pick up some milk before he gets home in the evening and we learn how he may have had his hand in the till to pay for his daughter's college fees. The remake creaks under the weight of its sentimentality, special pleading and absurd insistence on allowing Washington to indulge in some final-reel heroics.
Why were Seventies American thrillers so effective? On a glib level, you could argue that the Watergate Scandal and the moral and political uncertainty in the wake of the Vietnam War helped them. Even before President Nixon's disgrace, there was suspicion and paranoia in the air as well as a Kafka-esque sense that the State could turn against its own citizens. The idealism of the Sixties had evaporated. Films from The Conversation to The Parallax View captured this sinking feeling.
New York – as many thrillers of the 1970s showed – was a city coming apart at the seams. It may have been hellish to live in but was an excellent backdrop for movies about everything from gang warfare (1960s-set The Wanderers) to police corruption (Serpico) and vigilanteism (Taxi Driver). As Michael Pye wrote in Maximum City (his "biography" of New York), there was something apocalyptic about the city in the mid-1970s. "There were fewer police; so there was nobody to bust the neighbourhood drugs supermarkets, or the numbers games that posted yesterday's winners in a storefront window and offered doughnuts and coffee while you waited. Firefighters on Staten Island changed shift in Gypsy cabs. Parks became wilderness. Subways broke down..."
The sense of urban unease was captured in extreme form in John Carpenter's Escape From New York (1981), in which the entire city has become a maximum security prison, but was present in countless other movies. Sometimes, it could lead to film-making that was violent and nihilistic. Michael Winner's Death Wish (1974) represented a nadir. Charles Bronson played a husband who turned into an avenging angel after his wife was killed and his daughter raped. The film was about white, middle-class America's fear of "the other." As critic Roger Ebert wrote, it portrayed a world in which "every shadow holds a mugger, every subway train harbours a killer; the park is a breeding ground for crime." Whereas other film-makers addressed the complexity of the times, Winner chose a more simple-minded approach. He wasn't interested in the social and political tensions that made the cities so threatening to so many of their inhabitants. He just wanted to show Bronson clearing up those tensions at the point of a gun.
On one level, Seventies thrillers – for all their violence and creeping paranoia – represent a lost age of innocence. Whether it was Charles Bronson dispatching low-lifes in the Death Wish movies, Matthau pitted against Robert Shaw's mercenaries in Pelham 123 or Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle massacring the pimps and hustlers at the end of Taxi Driver, the protagonists were invariably able to mete out their version of frontier justice. Even in political thrillers, the villains could usually be identified and dispatched. There was still scope for old-fashioned shoot-outs.
Tony Scott's version of The Taking of Pelham 123 makes one very curious omission. It doesn't foreground at all the event that changed everything – the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. This gives the film's portrayal of New York a time-warp feel. The hijackers and the cops alike both seem to be playing by old-fashioned rules. We're not in the realm of suicide bombing or apocalyptic destruction. The robbers want a ransom, not necessarily to bring western democracy tumbling down.
The new Pelham 123 has some strong character actors to the fore – James Gandolfini as the mayor, John Turturro as one of the hard-bitten cops. It takes more than this, though, to recapture the crusty naturalism of the best Seventies movies. It wasn't just that the Seventies thrillers had stars like Walter Matthau and Gene Hackman. The film-makers who made them realised that the everyday details mattered just as much as the big set-pieces. What we remember from these films aren't the final-reel shootouts but the fat knot on Walter Matthau's tie, the pork-pie hat that Popeye Doyle wore in the French Connection films and – above all – the way the drama often hinged on something as insignificant as a sneeze.
'The Taking of Pelham 123' is out on 24 July