17 January 2012



1967/Director: Larry Peerce/ Writer: Nicholas E. Baehr

Cast: Martin Sheen, Tony Musante, Beau Bridges, Ruby Dee, Jack Gilford, Ed McMahon, Donna Mills, Brock Peters

Written by Nicholas Baehr and Directed by Larry Peerce, 1967’s The Incident is a gritty and disturbing film whose explorations into human cruelty and passivity have lost none of their topical value. I was surprised to find out that Baehr’s screenplay (based on his teleplay Ride with Terror) was never a stage production as the film has all those qualities. Almost all of the action takes place  one setting, that of a New York City subway train. The mixed cast deliver an outstanding ensemble performance. It is shot in b/w (as was his film One Potato, Two Potato, which dealt with interracial relationships in America, and racial issues play a theme in the Incident as well) which lends a documentary style to the movie that adds to its realism more than takes away from it. If you look at the scenes shot of the actual subways stations the camera work is shaky and out of focus at times. This is because the New York Transit Authority refused Peerce and crew permission to shoot location scenes, but in guerilla fashion the scenes were shot by cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld anyway, using hidden cameras, sometimes concealed in bags whose whirling motors drew the attention of subway authorities at times. When the police became overly suspicious Hirschfeld and his clandestine cameramen left the scene and returned later to finish the shots.

Joe Ferrante (played by an edgy and at times over the top Tony Musante in his first screen role   ) and partner in crime Artie Connors (a young Martin Sheen also in his first big screen film role) are a couple punks out looking for kicks. Their idea of kicks is mugging and terrorizing the citizens of late night New York who are unfortunate enough to cross paths with the pair. Joe is pumped up and simply psychopathic. Though it is not implied in the script we take a guess and assume he and Artie may be hopped on some sort of amphetamines. They do share swigs from a bottle of cheap wine or whiskey hidden in a brown paper bag. Artie is more of a follower and seems to do some of the things he does in an attempt to impress or gain approbation from Joe. The pair board a subway car that populated with people, mostly couples with one exception, we are introduced to, along with their personal problems, at the film’s beginning. The passengers are made-up of familiar faces from film of the late 60’s and early 70’s and include Beau Bridges, Jack Gilford, Gary Merrill, Brock Peters, Donna Mills, Ruby Dee and, in a surprisingly convincing role, Ed McMahon of The Tonight Show fame. Each person and couple have serious issues and problems and weaknesses that Joe and Artie, like true predators, home in on and exploit. Of particular note are the issues with:  a man who is the early stages of recovery from alcoholism and is desperate for a second chance in life, a young man struggling with expressing his homosexuality, a couple whose marriage is under strain from raising their child and making ends meet, and a black man who is bitter and angry at the cards he has been dealt in life.

As the film progresses Joe and Artie go from passenger to passenger and basically terrorize them. and egg them on, seeking a confrontation. While some people say that the passengers are collectively passive and back down from the two thugs I do not feel this is entirely true. The alcoholic (played by Gary Merrill) stands up to them as best he can when they torment a passed out bum. But in the end he can physically do nothing against the pair. An elderly women (Thelma Ritter) and her husband (Jack Gilford) refuse to be pushed out by these young and disrespectful punks, and Ritter’s character actually slaps Joe at one point, but in the end they are defenseless and Joe shows self-control in not beating the old pair to a bloody pulp. Ed McMahon’s character, a husband worried about his job and family, refuses to allow Joe to stroke his daughter’s hair and set the scene for the final climatic conflict in the film between Joe and his one true rival, a young soldier with a broken arm from Oklahoma (played by a cherub faced Beau Bridges).

Much can be said about the passivity of the passenger and yet when we put ourselves in their position how can we be sure we would act. Nice to think we would be like the heroic young army soldier from the south who ultimately is the one to stand alone against Joe and Artie, but I am not so sure. There are a couple younger and strong looking characters who could have certainly assisted young Pfc. Felix Teflinger (Bridges), including his timid Army buddy, but they all sit and do nothing when the time comes. If they had all stood up at the film’s end they could have easily taken Joe, knife or no knife. But like a herd of zebra they sit passively and watch while the predators attack what appears to be a weak member of the herd, grateful, that they have been spared. The final scenes where they file out of the subway car one by one is depressing and, unfortunately, too true to life to be comforting. And even more disturbing is the idea that this happened at a time when riding a subway in an American city was probably a hundred times safer than it is nowadays.


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