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Retro Review: THE INCIDENT (1967)


(US - 1967)

Directed by Larry Peerce. Written by Nicholas E. Baehr. Cast: Tony Musante, Martin Sheen, Beau Bridges, Brock Peters, Ruby Dee, Jack Gilford, Thelma Ritter, Ed McMahon, Diana Van der Vlis, Mike Kellin, Jan Sterling, Gary Merrill, Robert Fields, Robert Bannard, Victor Arnold, Donna Mills, Kathleen Smith, Henry Proach, Marty Meyers. (Unrated, 100 mins)

Though it has a devoted cult following, THE INCIDENT is a film that's flown under the radar for a half-century, vividly remembered by the few who saw it during its 1967-68 theatrical run and those who caught it on late-night TV well into the 1980s. After a 1989 VHS release, it's been unrepresented on home video until Twilight Time's new "Limited Edition Series" Blu-ray release (in her essay in the package's accompanying booklet, Julie Kirgo writes "Where has this extraordinary movie been all our lives?"). Shot in black & white at a time when it was used very sparingly aside from the occasional IN COLD BLOOD, THE INCIDENT has been restored to all of its edgy, gritty glory and is long overdue for discovery. Even now, over 50 years after its release, THE INCIDENT is an artifact from a bygone era that remains a visceral, shocking gut-punch today. Though it came just before the introduction of the MPAA rating system and is devoid of F-bombs, the language used and situations depicted in the film (including one pretty clearly alluding to a sexual assault taking place just below the frame) induce such a level of tension and unease that it's still worthy of an R rating even now. THE INCIDENT is a film that leaves you exhausted, shattered, and physically drained when the closing credits roll. It's possibly the best American film of the 1960s that nobody knows about, and it's possibly more potent today that it was then. There's certainly elements here that couldn't fly in the present without being labeled "problematic" or "triggering" and leading to numerous outraged thinkpieces, including the use of homophobic and racist slurs. This is a troubling, uncomfortable, claustrophobic, and profoundly unsettling film that stays with you long after it's over. Even revisiting it after 20+ years, scenes and dialogue remained etched in my memory and even though I knew what was coming, I could still feel my heart racing, my stomach in knots with tension, and a palpable anger brewing as a bad situation gets uglier by the minute.

A feature-length expansion of the more luridly-titled "Ride With Terror," a 1963 episode of NBC's THE DUPONT SHOW OF THE WEEK, THE INCIDENT was written by Nicholas E. Baehr, who went on to a workmanlike career writing for TV shows like MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, DAN AUGUST, and MCCLOUD. It was directed by Larry Peerce, who won significant acclaim for his 1964 debut ONE POTATO, TWO POTATO, but would gradually shift to mainstream assignments in the mid '70s like the Jill Kinmont biopic THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN (1975) and the sniper-in-a-football-stadium disaster movie TWO-MINUTE WARNING (1976). Peerce would drift into TV work later in his career after box-office duds like the 1984 Rick Springfield drama HARD TO HOLD and 1989's universally-maligned John Belushi chronicle WIRED, ultimately finishing his career (for now) with paycheck gigs directing episodes of TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL and a couple of Lifetime movies with Roma Downey. Now 87 and still very sharp on the Blu-ray commentary track with film historian Nick Redman, Peerce has been inactive since 2003 and THE INCIDENT remains his masterpiece that's also indicative of a time when he was still carving a niche for himself. On the commentary track, he mentions "rageful films intrigue me," and THE INCIDENT certainly qualifies as such. After a big hit with 1969's Philip Roth adaptation GOODBYE, COLUMBUS, Peerce turned down an offer to direct LOVE STORY and instead opted to make the theater-clearing, audience-alienating 1971 bomb THE SPORTING CLUB, which rendered him virtually unemployable. That, coupled with a divorce and needing the money, Peerce effectively abandoned his auteur aspirations and went the genre-hopping mercenary route with mixed results. He made a few decent theatrical and TV movies, but never again did Peerce direct anything like THE INCIDENT.

Set roughly between 2:00 and 3:30 am on a Sunday night/Monday morning in the Bronx, THE INCIDENT opens with rowdy troublemakers Joe Ferrone (Tony Musante, the only cast member to reprise his role from "Ride With Terror") and Artie Connors (a debuting Martin Sheen) hassling a pool hall manager and a couple on the street before rolling a guy and beating him to a pulp (possibly to death) for $8. Deciding the night is young, they mention going to Times Square as the film cuts to various groups of people headed for the subway from different locations. There's Bill (Ed McMahon, of all people) and Helen Wilks (Diana Van der Vlis), finally extricating themselves from a family gathering and arguing about money problems and her wanting a second child while their four-year-old daughter sleeps; smooth-talking Tony Goya (Victor Arnold) trying to seduce his latest conquest, 18-year-old virgin Alice Keenan (Donna Mills in her debut); elderly, bickering Jewish couple Sam (Jack Gilford) and Bertha Beckerman (Thelma Ritter), with Sam unable to shut up about how "these kids today are a disgrace" and bent out of shape that their son won't loan him "a lousy $500 so I can get my teeth fixed"; Oklahoma native and Army private Felix Teflinger (Beau Bridges who would go on to be a frequent Peerce collaborator), on leave with a broken arm and visiting his NYC-born Army buddy Philip Carmatti (Robert Bannard); nebbishy history teacher Harry Purvis (Mike Kellin) and his shrewish wife Muriel (Jan Sterling), who never misses a chance to remind Harry that his friends are richer and more successful than he is; Kenneth Otis (Robert Fields), an awkward homosexual trying to make small talk and connect with anyone; recovering alcoholic Douglas McCann (Gary Merrill; a young, pre-fame Gene Hackman played the role in "Ride With Terror"), eight months on the wagon and desperately waiting for news about a job offer; and Arnold (Brock Peters) and Joan Robinson (Ruby Dee), a black couple on their way home from a civil rights group meeting deemed too peaceful by militant anger management case Arnold, who has a huge chip on his shoulder about "Whitey" and starts an argument with the ticket booth operator.

All of these characters--plus a sleeping homeless man (Henry Proach)--end up in the same subway car, eventually joined by Joe and Artie, who enter making a huge racket and a drunken spectacle of themselves. After Artie attempts to give the vagrant a hot foot, McCann is the first to speak up, unleashing a barrage of torment and terror from Joe and Artie. Artie jams the door with the vagrant's shoe, preventing anyone from getting on or off, and Joe, who's smarter than he appears, is quickly able to deduce the Achilles' heel of everyone aboard. He accosts them one by one, instantly figuring out their weaknesses and exploiting them for maximum humiliation as Artie cheers him on. Artie primarily functions as the Chester to Joe's Spike, but even he gets into the act, immediately figuring out that Kenneth is gay and slyly seducing him into earning his trust. "You gotta help me...this guy I'm with is real buggy," Artie deceptively confides before beating him, calling him a "rotten fag," forcing him to dance with him and Joe, and spending the rest of the film referring to him as "The Princess" and making him sit in the corner. Joe exposes tough-talking Tony as a coward by sidling up to Alice and, judging from her body language and the pained faces she's making, doing things out of frame that couldn't be explicitly shown in 1967 as Tony freezes and does nothing. And starting with a loaded "Sho 'nuff!," he then demolishes Arnold, who's only too happy to watch a train car full of "crackers" being verbally and physically assaulted ("I'm with you, Jack," he smiles at Joe), but has it thrown right back at him when Joe repeatedly calls him the N-word and insinuates that his "smell" is all over the train. Throughout all of this, no one speaks up or makes any serious attempt to deter them other than Teflinger, but even he backs off after suggesting they "settle down" and Joe grabs him by the neck.

The infamous Kitty Genovese case--where a woman was killed while neighbors heard it all and did nothing--comes to mind while watching THE INCIDENT, and likewise, Peerce doesn't make things as simple as black or white. Yes, Joe and Artie are two of the most loathsome, psychotic creeps you'll ever see--the tragically underrated Musante, who died in 2013, is unforgettable here, and absolutely, terrifyingly repulsive in a way that prefigures the kinds of roles David Hess would make a career of after THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, and THE INCIDENT stands all the evidence anyone needs to conclude that he should've had a much bigger career than he did--but Peerce doesn't let the passengers off the hook, never hesitating to spotlight their cowardice and hypocrisy. As "The Princess" is agonizingly humiliated, dweeby Harry chuckles, Joan buries her face in a book, and tough guy Tony dismisses it as "Eh, they got a hold of some queer, so what?" No one stands up when Joe verbally assaults Arnold and Artie grabs Joan and threatens to break her arm. Everyone looks the other way while Joe's doing whatever he's doing to Alice while Tony sits there frozen (this is a really difficult scene to watch). No one intervenes when Muriel confronts Joe and he grabs the fascinator off of her head and uses it to caress her chest, asking "What do you want, lady? Maybe you want both of us," while Artie starts kissing her neck as hapless, helpless Harry stands there, utterly emasculated.

Photographed by the great Gerald Hirschfeld (YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN), THE INCIDENT is a film that could only work in black & white. Peerce indicates they did some color tests in pre-production and it was "a disaster," though he still had to fight to shoot it the way he wanted. It began as an independent production but ran out of money halfway through, salvaged by some major studio cash when two young junior execs at 20th Century Fox--Richard Zanuck (studio head Darryl F.'s son) and David Brown, both of whom went on to meet Steven Spielberg and produce JAWS at Universal--liked what they saw and agreed to back the film to completion, largely leaving Peerce alone to make the film he wanted to make. The only change they suggested, which Peerce said was a good idea, was to move the intro to Joe and Artie at the beginning instead of in the middle of the film, as their mugging of the guy for $8 takes place in the context of the story right before they get on the subway, even though they disappear for 40 minutes of screen time while the other characters are introduced. This also establishes an early prototype of an overlapping narrative time element that filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino would make commonplace in the 1990s. Every performance in THE INCIDENT is pitch-perfect, even McMahon, who's terrific as a blowhard, working class martyr in what Peerce describes as stunt casting that worked. The film brilliantly captures the scuzzy seediness of the big city after dark, fulfilling every warning you've ever heard about nothing good happening after 2:00 am. This was years before the blight and crime that became synonymous with Times Square and the Bronx of the '70s and '80s, but that aura is in its infancy here (I'm betting Martin Scorsese saw this, because much of MEAN STREETS has that same vibe in its locations), and even though the interiors were all constructed sets (Peerce and Hirschfeld caught some guerrilla-style exterior shots on the fly at real subway platforms, but the Transit Authority wouldn't authorize the use of a real subway car, insisting that crime on the subways wasn't an issue), THE INCIDENT looks like an image frozen in time. A master class in suspense, tension, and blistering social commentary (note the still-relevant bit at the end where the cops get on the train and, without a single word said and taking all of one second to assess the situation, immediately handcuff the black guy) that never feels "stagy" despite its close confines. THE INCIDENT isn't the only film of this type (the similar and equally obscure 1979 squirm-fest WHEN YOU COMIN' BACK, RED RYDER? is also worthy of unearthing), but it's a film not easily shaken, and an American classic that's patiently waited 50 years for some recognition. There's never been another movie quite like it.

Martin Sheen, Larry Peerce, and Beau Bridges
at a 2017 TCM Festival screening of THE INCIDENT

THE INCIDENT opening in Toledo, OH on 3/29/1968, paired with
the Bette Davis "thrill hit" THE ANNIVERSARY, also a time
when someone thought a drive-in double bill of THE GOOD,
THE BAD AND THE UGLY and FITZWILLY was a good idea. 

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