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The ultimate movie slob: Walter Matthau

Chris Nashawaty pays tribute to the ultimate movie slob: ”The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” star Walter Matthau

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The Taking of Pelham One Two Three: Everett Collection

The ultimate movie slob: Walter Matthau

The ’70s was a great decade for slobs. If you lived in New York City, all the better, because that was the slob capital. Just take a look at any of Sidney Lumet’s films from the era, like 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon, where the blue-collar cop played by Charles Durning always seems to have one collar askew, his pot belly straining the limits of his hoagie-stained shirt’s buttons. On the other end of the equation, Al Pacino’s bank robber, Sonny, could be the anti-Thomas Crown. His hair is matted and sweaty. He’s got a wild look in his eye that seems to say ”Yeah, my fly’s open and my shirt’s untucked — so what? I’m trying to rob a bank here!” Between him and his partner John Cazale, I’ll put the over/under on showers for the month at one.

Still, the master of rumpled, regular-guy cool from the decade was Walter Matthau, hands down. After playing proto-slob Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple, an unhealthy air of dishevelement seemed to follow him around like that cloud of dirt that trailed Pigpen from Peanuts. With his hangdog jowls, face like a side of brisket, and wardrobe seemingly salvaged from a Tempe Goodwill, Matthau always looked like he was having a rough day.

Matthau’s slob masterpiece from the period is 1974’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, a crackerjack heist film that puts the unkempt Matthau smack-dab in the slob locale of New York City, creating a perfect storm of slobbiness. But it’s not just about appearances (although Matthau’s flourescent yellow tie/plaid shirt/tweed blazer combo is oustanding): Matthau also internalized his messiness. As subway transit cop Lt. Zachary Garber (or ”Z,” as his equally unkempt friends like Jerry Stiller call him), Matthau is the poor SOB in charge when four well-armed (and well-dressed) wackos hijack a crowded subway train. They’re holding the car’s 18 passengers hostage for $1 million. If they don’t get the ransom within one hour, a hostage will be killed every minute past the deadline.

Okay, a couple of things here. This probably sounds kind of cliché, so consider this: The lead bad guy is played by Robert Shaw (Quint from Jaws), curmudgeonly character actor Martin Balsam (All the President’s Men) is his main accomplice, and a young Hector Elizondo (Chicago Hope) not only plays the gang’s loose cannon (he warns a passenger that if he moves, he’ll ”shoot his peepee off”), he also still has hair! The criminals all have aliases like Mr. Green, Mr. Blue, Mr. Brown, etc…. (Hmm. Does that sound familiar, Reservoir Dogs fans?) And the high-voltage third rail comes into play in one character’s demise late in the flick. By the way, you don’t see nearly enough third-rail deaths in movies. Just saying.

Despite all of that — and a funky-ass score to boot — this is really Matthau’s show. In his Bronx accent, he calls various incompetents who cross his path ”meatheads,” ”dummies,” and ”monkeys.” At one point, after negotiating with Shaw over the dispatch radio, he turns to Stiller and says (totally seriously), ”He’s got an English accent, he could be a fruitcake.” Ahh, comic homophobia. What a decade. It brings back beautiful memories of Mr. Roper lifting his pinkie in jest as he talks to Jack Tripper.

Speaking of which, Pelham is a cornucopia of ’70s details. Set right around the time President Ford told the bankrupt city to basically drop dead, Pelham is a document of an era of blackouts, strikes, grafitti, and general lawlessness. (When Shaw first whips out his machine gun and tells the passengers that they’re being hijacked, they just laugh. They’re New Yorkers; you’re gonna have to do better than that to scare them.) In one scene you can see the World Trade Center being built in the background. In another, we learn that the subway at the time only cost 35 cents. And then everywhere you look there’s Matthau and his unhealthy, slobby posse of civil-servant coworkers putting out cigarettes in the already-full ashtrays on their desks and drinking stale, cold coffee out of Styrofoam cups. These are real men. And Matthau, in all of his deliciously slobby glory, is their leader.

And oh yeah, the surprise ending is a honey.

Some interesting footnotes about Walter Matthau:

— His real name was Walter Matuschanskayasky (although there’s some dispute about whether this is true).

— An inveterate gambler, he claimed to have lost $5 million over the years.

— He served in the Army Air Corps with Jimmy Stewart.

— Dan Castellaneta claims that the voice of Homer Simpson was based on Matthau.

— The one time I interviewed him, he rather inexplicably kept calling me ”pussycat” (e.g., ”Could you repeat the question, pussycat?”).

What’s your favorite Matthau movie?