BR: Incident, The (1967)

March 22, 2018 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released: February 20, 2018

Genre:  Drama / Suspense

Synopsis: Two punks terrorize passengers in a cramped NYC subway car late Sunday night.

Special Features: Audio commentary with director Larry Peerce and film historian Nick Redman / Isolated Mono Music Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and




The making of Larry Peerce’s second feature film is almost as fascinating as The Incident itself, which began as a live teleplay for the DuPont Show of the Week in 1963. Produced in the third and final season of the series, “Ride with Terror” was an hour long drama about two thugs who terrorize subway travelers on a dry, late Sunday night.

Vincent Gardenia, Gene Hackman, and Ron Leibman were in the 1963 teleplay cast, plus Tony Musante, who reprised the role of lead tormentor Joe Ferrone in the 1967 feature. Musante had done some TV plus a small part in Once a Thief (1965), but Incident marked his big screen lead, along with Martin Sheen, making his film debut as Joe’s equally nasty pal Artie Connors.

The script was fleshed out to feature-length with a short prologue that shows Joe and Artie refusing to leave a pool hall, and later almost beating to death an old man to brighten up an otherwise dull Sunday night. The victims of the pair’s shenanigans are also followed in separate intros as they leave their secure environs and head to the subway line in a lengthy first half, which Twilight Time’s resident historian Nick Redman rightly notes is more typical of a disaster film than social problem drama.

As is classic to a disaster film, the lives of disparate innocents are interwoven in the first act, and before they converge in an environment that becomes toxic and deadly, there’s a spark of danger; that blossoming threat becomes the through-line that propels the conflicts before there’s an inevitable live-saving escape or complex rescue operation.

Nicholas Baehr’s script isn’t a disaster film, but its structure is as lean and potent as The Poseidon Adventure (1972), but instead of providing closure for the few who survived, the misery and selfishness of the passengers remain unchanged. Redman and director Peerce provide one of the label’s most lively and engaging commentary tracks, and at age 87 Peerce is still razor sharp with his memories.

Incident started as an indie production and later switched to a Fox pickup when money vanished a week into filming. The studio left the filmmaker alone with his extraordinary cast, and the group filmed the claustrophobic subway car scene in chronological order, integrating some of the vivid improv work from a prior rehearsal session; it is shocking how brutal the film turns, with language and behaviour that could not have been possible 10 years earlier.

While Joe (Musante) and Artie (Sheen) rob and beat an old man, several couples make their way to the same subway line around 2am: Alice (Donna Mills in her film debut) gives in to pushy boyfriend Tony (Victor Arnold, also film debut) and intends on letting him have his way at his place; bickering seniors Bertha (Thelma Ritter) and Sam (Jack Gifford) debate their ungrateful son’s merits; Bill (Tonight Show emcee Ed McMahon, also making a solid dramatic debut) argues nonstop with wife Helen (Diana Van der Vils) as he cradles their sleepy daughter; Murial (Jan Sterling) and Harry (Mike Kellin) are maybe 90 mins. away from ending a long-rotting marriage; African-American WWII veteran Arnold is seething with rage from habitual doses of racism, and wife Joan (Ruby Dee) does her best to keep his stopper from popping; war cadets Felix (Beau Bridges, in his dramatic debut) and Phillip (Robert Bannard, film debut) leave the latter’s family dinner and head back to base; and alcoholic Douglas (Gary Merrill) fends off young male suitor Kenneth (Robert Fields) in a dive bar, only to encounter him in the same subway car.

The film’s final half is essentially each character being challenged and picked apart by manipulative punks who know exactly how to puncture safe zones and leave each man and woman completely humiliated; there is a comeuppance of sorts – the finale’s showdown is a slight portent of the finale in Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977) – but Peerce also works in a very clever moment that still rings true today.

On one level, Incident operates like an intense study of human cruelty and indifference, making the higher-pitched performances by Musante and Sheen’s feel hyper-reel, but the circumstances are certainly true of what exists when combustible characters appear in public places, especially confined spaces like buses, subways, and streetcars. The punks are button-pushers, and their victims are selected and eviscerated separately to give others the false sense of security: if you look away and mind your business, you won’t be next.

What makes the dramatic showdown unique is there’s only one way out of the car, and the power to enter & exit, and the assistance alarm are controlled by the punks, whose mercurial behaviour glides from funny and childish to nasty. When Joe doesn’t get the desired rise from a target, he goes closer: he creepily touches Bill’s sleeping child with his sweaty hands; he tries to throttle handicapped Felix; and waves an open booze mickey in front of a very parched Douglas.

The cruelest taunting is meted out to Kenneth, outed after Artie pretends to be an innocent wrangled into a horror show run by Joe; and to Arnold, who stays to watch ‘whitey’ pick off his own scabs, but all that prior boasting and hunger to crack heads in his first scene evaporates when Joe’s rage runs higher and nastier than his own. The language Joe projectile vomits onto Arnold is horrific, and it’s around this stage in the film where some viewers may feel the writer and director are pushing more for hyper-drama than reality by not having the two cadets and war vet Arnold take command and stop the punks; Incident is arguably more of a performance piece and moral screed than social commentary.

The yearning to see payback may be unique to present day audiences acclimatized to neat vengeance thrillers where tormentors die horribly. Baehr’s script (of which material between Peters and Dee was rewritten by the latter’s husband Ossie Davis) and Peerce’s direction end the drama without much change within the group’s power structure, and there’s plenty of grey where the fate of two wounded characters are never detailed.

Like a pool table, the balls in the game are reset, and the is table wiped clean for the next players, which is essentially what happens after any incident is resolved or perpetrators manage to flee, because the conveyances in urban environs must keep moving. The writer & director’s ambition may have been to implant a simple sense of responsibility within people, so that when something awful is clearly unraveling, they should fight against indifference and tolerance of outright hate.

Released quietly with little fanfare, The Incident faded from distribution, and Redman regards the film as a curious example of studio Fox accepting riskier, low budget properties as big budget productions failed to click with audiences and critics. Peerce’s film is very much the polar opposite of Doctor Doolittle (1967), and for most of its participants, the indie pickup proved a career boost.

Peerce directed Goodbye, Columbus (1969), Baehr returned to episodic TV, and after a small part in The Detective (1968) Musante moved to Italy and struck gold in Sergio Corbucci’s The Mercenary (1968), Dario Argento’s Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), and Enrico Maria Salerno’s The Anonymous Venetian (1970) before dividing his time between the U.S. and Italy. Sheen has not stopped working steadily in every genre in film and TV, and although Bridges appeared with Bannard in For Love of Ivy (1968), the latter stepped away from film and TV, while Bridges has remained a prolific character actor (The Fabulous Baker Boys) and occasional director (Seven Hours to Judgment).

Mills appeared in Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut Play Misty for Me (1971), but gained immortality as Knots Landing’s savvy provocateur Abby (1980-1993). Brock Peters had already appeared in several classics – To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Heavens Above! (1963), The Pawnbroker (1964) – but would soon settle in episodic TV.

As their commentary track starts to wind down, Redman engages Peerce to talk a bit about his unusual career which is admittedly filled with many peaks and valleys. Starting in local TV and working his way up to network shows, Peerce brought Love Story to Paramount but chose to turn down the project (!) thus beginning the third and most uneven part of his career, which includes the Liz Taylor dud Ash Wednesday (1973), the cult assassin thriller Two Minute Warning (1976), the Rick Springfield drama Hard to Hold (1984), and the John Belushi biopic Wired (1989).His best-known work in TV includes a slew of bio and historical dramas: Queenie (1987), Elvis and Me (1988), The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson (1990), and A Woman Named Jackie (1991).

TT’s Blu also features an isolated mono music track featuring Charles Fox’s very sparse score (credited composer Terry Knight reportedly wrote none of the score material), and the stark B&W cinematography by Gerald Hirshfeld (Young Frankenstein) remains sharp with its natural grain. Peerce recalls the cinematographer using fast Tri-X film to enable shooting with location and practical lights, and the DNR in the HD transfer is kept fairly low, except in a few very minor spots.

With its debut on Blu, The Incident is another orphan gem rescued from oblivion, and a fine example of creative ingenuity on a tight budget, balancing cinema verite with grungy social commentary that still resonates 51 years after its brief theatrical release – a lucky fate that will hopefully befall a related drama, Anthony Harvey’s 1966 directorial debut Dutchman.



© 2018 Mark R. Hasan




External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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