Since the film's release, no #6 train has ever been scheduled to leave Pelham Bay Park Station at either 13:23 or 01:23 by the New York City Transit Authority. This was the practice for many years until the policy was discontinued. Trains are still not scheduled to leave the Pelham Bay Park Station at either 1.23 am or pm.
In a TVO (Ontario, Canada) interview, the producer said that this film did terrific box office in New York, Toronto, London and Paris--all cities with subways--but was considered a flop in the rest of the world.
The Transit Authority (TA) of New York at first refused to allow the film to be shot on the actual New York subway. They feared it might actually give someone the idea to commit such a crime (it didn't, but their position was shown to be reasonable when a later film, Money Train (1995), apparently did). Associate producer Stephen F. Kesten was equally adamant that no other city's subway could be credibly used. The TA finally did cooperate after Mayor John V. Lindsay intervened, but it required United Artists to buy anti-hijacking insurance at a cost of $75,000, in addition to paying $275,000 for the use of the subway. The film's closing credits have a disclaimer that states that the New York Transit Authority neither gave advice nor information for any use in the movie. It reads: "Although many of the scenes in this film were taken on transit property, the New York City Transit Authority is not responsible for the plot, story and characters portrayed. The Authority did not render technical advice and assistance".
Filming of the subway scenes began in late November 1973 and lasted through January 1974. Though the scenes were filmed on a track that had been out of use since the 1940s, they were close enough to the still functioning A and E lines that takes had to be done in between those trains coming through (to and from Hoyt-Schermerhorn station) because of their noise and lights.
The aliases of the four train hijackers were Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Grey, and Mr. Brown. The color of the hats worn by each of the four villains, Grey, Green, Blue, Brown corresponded to their code names. They each boarded the train at different subway station stops, these were Mr Green at 59th Street Station, Mr Grey at 51st Street Station, Mr Brown at Grand Central Station, and lastly Mr Blue at 28th Street Station.
When frustrated by the situation on the subway train, the Mayor blurts out, "Shit, piss, fuck!" These are, in order, the first three of the seven words you can't say on television for which George Carlin is famous.
Filmed mostly in the tunnels leading to the decommissioned IND Court St. station in Brooklyn. The station itself served as Grand Central and 28th St., and it is currently the home of the New York City Transit Museum.
Lee Wallace, who plays the mayor of New York in this film, bears a striking resemblance to the real mayor Ed Koch. Many reviewers thought he was playing Koch, but Koch would not be the mayor for another four years.
The reason for the large gap between the subway cars and the platform is that a large portion of the underground scenes was filmed on the unused Court St. stub of the IND subway, which uses wider cars than the IRT cars used in the film.
The meaning of "Pelham One Two Three" refers to the New York subway timetable terminus and time of departure schedule radio call sign. As explained in the movie, "Pelham" is the name of the station of origin where the subway train departs, and "One Two Three" refers to the time of departure--1:23 pm.
Composer David Shire was asked to extend the end credits piece of score to allow for extra time/credits added in. His then wife, Talia Shire, suggested that he write in an adaption of the theme that reflected a more romantic view of New York city, to contrast the gritty sounds used for the film's main score. David Shire adopted this approach in the extended passage.
The movie inspired two songs, Deadly Avenger's "We Took Pelham" and Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machines "The Taking of Peckham One Two Three". Moreover, the Beastie Boys' song "Sure Shot" features a lyric inspired by this film that says: "Well, it's the taking of Pelham, one, two, three / If you want a doodie rhyme then come see me".
In the novel, motorman Denny Doyle is one of the hostages and the one who gets gunned down by the hijackers later when they decide to execute one of them while the conductor, Bud Carmody, is released at the outset to lead the passengers in the other cars back to 28th Street Station. The film reverses this with Doyle being ordered to lead the other passengers back while Carmody is kept hostage and is the one executed. This was done so that way, with the motorman released at the beginning before the train moves further along, Lieutenant Garber could correctly deduce that one of the hijackers had been a motorman previously.
In the novel, an off-duty cop is one of the hostages and takes matters into his own hands at the climax. He shoots Ryder in the tunnel (named Grier in the film) but dies by electrocution in the film. Ryder is killed by Garber outside in the 2009 remake.
The ending is different in the novel to this and the 2009 remake; in this film, the last remaining robber says something incriminating to Walter Matthau, and in the remake, Garber kills Ryder and the cops kill the last two robbers.