The Taking of Pelham 123

Organized Chaos

“Movies allow and encourage avant-garde music that wouldn’t play in the concert hall,” said jazz historian Gary Giddins. When I was covering the “Jazz Score” exhibit last year at the Museum of Modern Art, I attended the “Anatomy of a Jazz Score” panel, moderated by Giddins, in which Johnny Mandel and David Shire discussed jazz in film. The release this weekend of 1974’s THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE is as good a time as any to revisit David Shire’s classic jazz-funk score as well.

Shire’s score is based on one of the 20th century’s most avant-garde musical developments—the 12-tone row. Devised by Arnold Schoenberg in 1921, the twelve-tone technique encompasses all 12 tones of the chromatic scale arranged into a “row.” The pitches can be used in any order, but each pitch cannot be repeated until the entire row is completed.

For this story of a New York transit cop (Walter Matthau) trying to halt the hijacking of a subway train, Shire had “to capture a particular time and place”—New York in the early 1970s—and since he found that often “progressive jazz can appear aleatoric,” he employed serial composition techniques to convey “organized chaos.”

PELHAM’s main theme is built around a tone row with only four intervals: the minor second, the minor third, and their respective inversions, the major seventh and the major sixth. Underneath it all, a two-note ostinato propelled the music forward, utilizing multi-ethnic percussion, featuring percussionists Shelly Manne and Larry Bunker.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three soundtrack
“Main Title”

“I scored a lot of cattle stampedes in my day,” said Shire, and as a result, he learned how to score music to be heard in the final cut of a film. Shire scored the PELHAM music mainly for the low (including the rare use of a contrabass saxophone) and high instruments, so that the music would not be covered up by the noise of the subway train.

The end credits, which were originally supposed to be a reprise of the main titles, ended up with an extra minute that needed music. Shire’s first wife, Talia, came up with the idea of smoothing out the tone row as a way of bringing some peace and calm out of the chaos of the film. With a wry grin, he hoped that the audience “fleeing up the popcorn-encrusted floor…would notice my artfulness.”

Fans have always noticed, even critics have noticed. Shire makes serialism sound as easy as 1-2-3. That’s artful, indeed.

  1. I love His Score for Dick Richards “Farewell My Lovely”.the remake of Murder My Sweet. It is one of my favorite Robert Mitchum films. Great Sax work by Ronny Lang, Justin Gordon, and Don Menza. I have the soundtrack. And why is Tony Scott remaking Taking Pelham One Two Three? Denzel is not Matthau.

    1. I love FAREWELL MY LOVELY as well. That music captured a perfect smoky noir sound. As for PELHAM, I agree Denzel isn’t Matthau (though he’s a pretty damn good actor). But, without having seen it, I think this PELHAM is a far different beast than the other one. Whether or not it succeeds is another discussion. I’ll have to see it before adding my two cents.

  2. It has an excellent main theme, but apart from that, not many cues stand out as excellent. ‘Money Montage’ and ‘Fifty Seconds / The Money Express’ are definitely in that category though.

    1. I think this is a case where the whole score contributes to the aura of the movie as opposed to separate cues. Though, honestly, I like the whole thing. (I doubt Schoenberg would approve. LOL)

  3. PS. Thanks Jim for adding the title track for 123. I forgot what a funky brass chart it is.

  4. Thank you for your write up on this. “I scored a lot of cattle stampedes in my day,” is an especially hilarious experience that made him the man for the noisy train job.

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