Heading into Twilight

Movement 2A in a critical exquisite corpse project analyzing films by Tony Scott. This entry focuses on _The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3_ (2009).
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky


This article is part of the critical project Tony Scott: A Moving Target in which an analysis of a scene from a Tony Scott film is passed anonymously to the next participant in the project to respond to with an analysis of his or her own.

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The last few years’ critical and cinephilic reappraisal of Tony Scott—what a cynical person might call “the Tony Scott gold rush”—has largely focused on Scott as an artist: his collage editing aesthetic, his playful and expressive use of super-saturated color, his fondness for abstraction.

Scott certainly had some sense of himself as an artist. He was trained as a painter (a little-known fact: Scott animated the logo of Scott Free, the production company he shared his brother Ridley), and his intense work habits hint at a background in art school technique; instead of conventional storyboards, he would—like an oil painter preparing to work—make extensive sketches on the morning of a shoot. But he was also a largely unpretentious Hollywood filmmaker; the most accurate way to describe his work—especially the more visually playful films of his late period—is not as “art,” but as “entertainment informed by art.” Scott’s aesthetic adventurousness never detracted from or subverted the main function of his movies—to be entertainment. Rather, the things that make Scott’s films compelling as art—his sense of color, his penchant for warping and cracking space, his deliberate mismatches—are there to, first and foremost, make an entertaining movie.

By my side, I have a print out of the text that precedes this one. I’ve marked it up with a blue pencil. Half a sentence is underlined on the last page: “Thus, as the plot’s perils increase, so does Scott’s stylization heighten in tandem.” I’ve drawn an arrow from that underlined half-sentence to the left-hand margin of the page, where I’ve written and circled a phrase from earlier in the text that stuck with me: “threat space.”

Scott was an inventive high-stylist, though I don’t think style was the reason many of his films were so popular; rather, it was the use of style, the way he was able to pair a ratcheting of tension with an amped-up aesthetic. His approaches to visual stylization could border on the avant-garde (especially in late-period films like Man on Fire, which is pretty much a catalog of celluloid “extended techniques”), but they were almost always in the service of a sturdy, beat-based Hollywood story. In other words, Crimson Tide isn’t an “entertaining thriller with Expressionist flourishes,” it’s—and I think the preceding text does a great job of showing the hows of this point—an entertaining thriller because of its Expressionist flourishes.

Those unusual lighting schemes—including, if I remember correctly, a scene where the lighting in a frame goes, left to right, from red to green to blue (a visual play, I assume, on the RGB additive color model)—remind me of a different boldly, starkly lit “threat space” in a Tony Scott movie: the hijacked train in Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. I’m thinking specifically of the scene when Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) has to roll the ransom on a handcart over to the train and deliver it (along with himself) to head hijacker “Ryder” (John Travolta).

The hijacked train car is a familiar, even banal place made sinister by otherworldly lighting—big swaths of teal, with super-saturated blood red in counterpoint—and an odd arrangement of figures (all of the the seats are empty, no one is standing up; the hostages are face down on the ground, the hijackers are hunched down in the corners of the car). “Outside,” throughout the tunnels and streets of New York, the cops have a measure of control, but the inside of the train—a mobile “threat space”—is Ryder’s topsy-turvy, garish domain.

I’ve never read the novel Pelham is based on, but I’ve seen the other two adaptations. The protagonists of the 1974 film version (played by Walter Matthau) and the 1998 TV movie version (played by Edward James Olmos) are both police officers; one major difference between these first two adaptations and Scott’s version—and the change that really makes it a Tony Scott movie—is that the Garber character is a train dispatcher. He is—like the train engineers of Scott’s subsequent Unstoppable—not a person who ordinarily finds himself in dangerous or exceptional situations, and yet the dangerous / exceptional situation he finds himself in has everything to do with his profession. In Scott’s Pelham, Garber is the first person the hijackers talk to after they’ve taken over the train and—in part because Ryder prefers talking to Garber rather than the hostage negotiator played by John Turturro—becomes their point of contact. Near the end of the film, it’s Garber who has to deliver $10 million to Ryder’s crew.

Garber is given the cash in bags. While a SWAT team waits, he slowly pushes a cart loaded with the bags up to the stalled train. A brief establishing shot of the train emphasizes the curve of a section of track. It resembles the arch of a bridge.

This is a quintessential Scott visual / narrative device: the crossing over, the moment when a character (more often than not played by Denzel Washington) decides to trudge toward certain doom. I’m thinking, for instance, of Washington’s surrender to the thugs at the end of Man on Fire (which occurs on a bridge), or the scene where he climbs inside of the time machine in Déjà Vu (a bridge through space and time). Out of principle, the hero crosses the bridge over into the “threat space”—which is just roundabout way of writing “Danger Zone,” isn’t it?

The lyrics of that corny, catchy Kenny Loggins song—penned by action-movie theme song specialist Tom Whitlock, who also wrote songs for Over the Top and Navy SEALs (a movie I probably saw fifty times as a kid)—read like an item-by-item breakdown of Scott’s macho themes: “The further on the edge / The hotter the intensity,” “You'll never know what you can do / Until you get it up as high as you can go,” etc., etc. They’re all clichés. And yet what Scott did, what he excelled at, was making art—and, more importantly for my purposes, great entertainment—out of these cheesy notions about staring down death.

The first part of the scene—Garber pushing the handcart—only lasts a few seconds, but it’s fragmented across multiple shots and angles. It’s what you’d call “excessive coverage;” the scene—as linear in terms of action as any scene could be, with a clear point A and a clear point B and only one way to get there—could easily have been accomplished in a single shot (I imagine that a more straight-up formalist like John McTiernan would do it with a wide angle lens and a Steadicam, following Garber from behind as he approaches the train, lamp-lights streaking long horizontal flares across the anamorphic frame).

As it often does, Scott’s style breaks up space (that’s the irony of these “threat spaces” / “danger zones” / whathaveyou—they’re all spatially incoherent). Not only does Scott switch from wide shot to close up and back again, but he also mixes wide angle lenses with telephoto ones. Discussions of decoupage rarely touch on questions of lens choice—which is a shame, because focal length and depth-of-field play as big a role in how on-screen action works and moves as shot duration and angle.

Both types of lenses used for the scene are prized in part for their ability to distort space: wide-angles stretch it out, long lenses flatten. The effect is a subtle spatial wobble: the proportions of the tunnel change with every cut. It seems cavernous in one shot, claustrophobic in the next. Obviously, neither of these qualities carries positive connotations—they’re two different kinds of unease. It’s a canny piece of filmmaking craft; tension is created not by evoking uncertainty—the what’s-around-the-corner dread of a long take’s slow crawl—but by deliberately disorienting the viewer, mucking with their imagined sense of a space. (Despite these disorienting cuts, the sequence features no obvious continuity errors, probably because all of the shots come from a single multi-camera take.)

This leads up to the film’s big Moment of Anticipation. Ryder and Garber have spent the entire film talking over the train dispatch radio—a typical, space-warping Scott relationship. In a few seconds, they will meet face to face. As Garber approaches the train, the door slides open. Out steps one of Ryder’s henchmen, followed by the man himself.

The first “physical meeting” between Garber and Ryder is, on paper, a routine shot / reverse shot set-up—except the shots aren’t classically matched. There is, as in moment when Garber crosses the point of no return, a deliberate spatial / visual unbalance.

Ryder is photographed from a low angle. It’s a deep-focus medium shot which, in the anamorphic frame, clearly shows the blood-spattered window behind him. Garber’s shot is more of a close-up, framed roughly eye-level, space compressed by a zoom lens. The depth-of-field is very shallow; the henchman who walks up to Garber while Ryder is talking is a fuzzy shape, completely out of focus. The lighting doesn’t match either; in fact, Garber and Ryder are lit with opposite (but also—and this is very important to the film’s conceit of the two as kindred spirits, could-have-been buddies—complementary) colors. Garber stands in his orange safety vest, lit by a dim gold light; Ryder stands in a blue shirt in front of the bluish cab.

When Garber arrives, Ryder greets him, disarmingly, like a friend (“You’re taller than I thought!”) and makes idle banter, asking him about his wife and his health (“How much do you weight? About 220?”). During one of these banal questions, Scott cuts to another long-lens shot. The window of the cab briefly becomes an abstracted frame-within-the-frame—very literally, a portrait of Garber. Then, the camera refocuses from Garber’s face on to the surface of the window itself. Space shifts to another flattened plane.

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