Tag Archive for Walter Matthau

On Watching “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” and David Shire, and a Sneeze, and Chekhov’s Gun

Netflix recently added a bunch of movies from the 70s and “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” caught my eye (the original 1974 film, not the remake). I remembered seeing it in the theater in my early teens. Walter Matthau and the gritty old NYC vibe. Not quite the caliber of “The French Connection” or “Serpico,” but drawing from those same mean streets. And what a cast, in addition to Matthau, there’s Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, Jerry Stiller, and more, including Lee Wallace spoofing NYC Mayor Koch. 


Anyway, I watched it again. I don’t know that it stood up all that well, but I enjoyed it, partly for nostalgic reasons. It brought me back.

That said: The opening theme, written by legendary composer David Shire, is out of this world good. Brassy and propulsive and energetic, a jazz-funk theme that announces a city that is alive and muscular, gritty and tough.

Give it a listen . . . it’s fabulous. 


One thing of note. There’s a moment early in the film when one of the bad guys sneezes and Matthau’s character — Garber — says “Gesundheit.” It was enough of a moment, including that extra beat, that made me think, Hmmmm, why are they doing this here?

I knew something was up with that sneeze.

The film goes on and, wow, again, the bad guy (Green) sneezes. And again, Gesundheit. So not only do we notice it, we notice Garber noticing it. And if I didn’t realize after the first sneeze, by this time I knew for damn certain that the movie would include one more sneeze. A pivotal sneeze. And that it would be how Green gets caught.

(Sidenote: I assume this is where Tarantino lifted the idea for all the criminals in “Reservoir Dogs” using colors for code names: Mr. Brown, Mr. Pink, Mr. Orange, etc.)

Anyway, this is why my long-suffering wife Lisa hates watching movies with me. To the point where I’ve had to promise to keep my big mouth shut. Or else I’ll ruin things by musing out loud on the (obvious!) ending in the first few minutes of a movie. I’m sure other writers, especially mystery writers (there are 42 Jigsaw Jones books, after all, so I’ve learned a thing or two about laying out clues), do this all the time. We notice things. The odd clue that’s put forward unexpectedly, with just a touch too much emphasis. Why have that minor character sneeze like that? It must mean something. Or we know that it will mean something later on.

This is, of course, Chekhov’s Gun. The idea that if a writer introduces a gun in the first act, it must go off by the third act. Otherwise, don’t include the gun at all. Or the sneeze. Every element is essential to the story or irrelevant.

Anyway, the film dutifully gives us that sneeze at the end of the film, as I knew it must.






And the scene was perfect, and waiting for it held its own deep satisfaction. And then we got the film’s final shot, Matthau’s mug, hearing it, and knowing: he’s got his man.

End scene, end movie.

Just perfect.

Appreciation: The Ending of “The Bad News Bears.”

To be clear up front, we are talking the 1976 original with Tatum O’Neil, Walter Matthau, etc.

By the way, a shout out to the names of these characters: Amanda Whurlitzer, Coach Morris Buttermaker, Ogilvie, Engelberg, Jimmy Feldman, Rudi Stein, Tanner Boyle, Ahmad Abdul Rahim, Kelly Leak and Timmy Lupus. The names seem perfect to me now, especially when heard through the muttering lips of Coach Buttermaker, “Listen, Lupus, you didn’t come into this life just to sit around on a dugout bench, did ya? Now get your ass out there and do the best you can.”

I’ve watched it several times, most recently about seven years ago. Great movie, though the language might startle you with its profanity and ethnic slurs. Pretty harsh by today’s politically-correct standards. The through-line of the movie moves inexorably toward the big, championship game. We’ve seen the Bears come together, struggle and lose, then learn to win, and now the stage is set for the film’s dramatic conclusion: The Big Game. We’ve seen this setup countless times before.

The first time I watched the movie, the game’s ending surprised me. It came down to a close play at home plate, the scrappy Bears about to tie it with two outs in the last inning . . . the baserunner slides, the catcher applies the tag, the dust rises . . . “Out!” the umpire calls.

Game over. The Bears lose.

What? Really?

For years I’ve marveled at (and appreciated) that decision by screenwriter Bill Lancaster and director Michael Ritchie. They didn’t allow the Bears to win the big game. Nope, they lost it. Because, when you think about it, winning was never actually the point to this story, not in a satire about Little League competition. But still, the Bears lost; it was shocking. Partly because you almost never see that in books and movies, for all sorts of reasons.

I might be more sensitized to endings than ever before, since I’ve been frequently queried about the ending to Bystander. I recently came across some of my early notes on the book that made it clear how I fully understood that my original ending lacked drama, it just didn’t hit it out of the park. I sensed that some readers might want more, particularly when considering their heightened feelings about fairness, justice. So I cooked up an alternative, a more satisfying ending, more complicated and conflict-oriented, and arrived at something pretty cool where the bad guy got it in the end. Not too shabby, way better from a purely dramatic point of view, but it didn’t satisfy me — because it didn’t ring true. Not to life as I knew it. So I reinstated my original ending, the one where life goes on without trumpets or tidy bows, unicorns or rainbows. The kid gets through it, basically. Survives. It gets better.

I don’t know what made me think of The Bad News Bears last night, but I remembered what happened in the scene immediately after the game. It was trophy time, that dreaded, heartless cheer, “Two, four, six, eight! Who do we appreciate?” The hated Yankees received a ludicrously-oversized trophy. And as consolation prize, the Bears were handed a dinky second-place trophy — and also, it should be recognized, offered grudging respect by the (still condescending) opposition.

It’s at this point, the movie’s true ending, when Tanner Boyle barks these immortal words:

“Hey, Yankees. You can take your apology,

and this trophy, and shove it straight up your ass!”

That was the film’s true ending, of course. It was never about the game. It was about winning respect, and self-respect. About being a team. In the end, Lancaster and Ritchie gave the Bears the much greater victory. There they were, hopping around like idiots, spritzing non-alcoholic beer on each other, happy and . . . triumphant. They lost the game, sure, so what, but ended the film on the perfect note. Pretty terrific, if you ask me.

See for yourself . . .

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