Director: Larry Peerce
Screenplay: Nicholas E. Baehr
Based on a Teleplay written by: Nicholas E. Baehr
Starring: Tony Musante, Martin Sheen, Beau Bridges, Brock Peters, Ruby Dee, Jack Gilford, Thelma Ritter, Ed McMahon, Diana Van der Vlis
Running Time: 99 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
1967 was a turning point for American cinema. After the more sanitised, glossy entertainment of films in the 50s and early 60s, suddenly a glut of challenging titles appeared, presenting violence, sex and social issues on screen in a strikingly realistic fashion. Films released that year such as The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde changed the face of cinema. One title released in 1967 that seems to have become forgotten in this era of New Hollywood however, despite it fitting into this fresh mould, was Larry Peerce’s The Incident, and the director himself has largely disappeared from public consciousness too.
Peerce’s 1964 debut feature, One Potato, Two Potato, was quite successful and turned heads with its groundbreaking depiction of interracial marriage. However, the director moved into TV straight afterwards, working on live productions such as Batman, The Green Hornet and Branded for a few years before making The Incident. The film wasn’t a great success and has largely drifted into obscurity since. However, it had enough of a following to linger in the minds of a handful of film aficionados and Eureka have deemed it worthy of a handsome new dual-format release in the UK. I must admit I’d never heard of the film or its director before, but some strong reviews convinced me it was worth a watch and I’m pleased to say it certainly was.
Adapted from a teleplay called Ride With Terror written by Nicholas E. Baehr, who also wrote this film version, The Incident has a very simple setup. After meeting a pair of cruel and violent ‘juvenile delinquents’, Joe (Tony Musante) and Artie (Martin Sheen), we are introduced one-by-one to a series of characters, largely bickering couples, as they make their way towards the New York city subway. They all gradually enter the same carriage and, as you might suspect, the final pair to come on board are Joe and Artie. They’re restless and on the look-out for some fun-and-games so proceed to torment the passengers, one-by-one.
So it’s a stripped-back film that uses its premise to explore the terrible state the city of New York was in at the time as well as act as a microcosm of America. As an infamous pamphlet handed out to newcomers by the New York Police Department shows (included in the accompanying leaflet here), it was a dangerous place with violence, crime and even murder rife. It was so ingrained in the area that the public grew used to it and an unwritten ‘don’t get involved’ rule was adopted. An infamous incident in 1964 saw Kitty Genovese murdered outside her apartment building while reportedly dozens of residents listened on without intervening or even calling the police (though the story may have been exaggerated by the press). The Incident plays on this idea by having the carriage-full of bystanders only make brief, weak attempts to stop Artie and Joe from attacking everyone else. There are enough of them to easily overcome the pair, but no one wants to risk being the hero or let them into their little bubble.
This isn’t the only statement the film is trying to make though. By having the antagonists jump on any fears or insecurities they can detect in their victims, they act like what one of the commentary contributors calls “dirty psychiatrists”, peeling open the characters and examining their flaws. In this way, the film looks at a number of inherent issues in America. There’s a lonely homosexual character that’s abused, an alcoholic, a date-rapist, a black couple that share differing views on racial politics (interestingly, one of them is played by Ruby Dee who was a huge figure in the Civil Rights Movement and an incredibly inspirational figure – look her up) as well as a few fractured marriages of varying ages. Only a few of these characters are all that sympathetic too. The men in particular are mainly unpleasant, often bullies. None of the characters really change at the end either. They all still step over the drunk lying on the floor as they exit the carriage. So, despite all they go through, they’re still going to follow the unwritten rule of not getting involved in other people’s problems, no matter how much or little help they need.
As such, The Incident is not easy-viewing. It’s the sort of brutal, grim film that makes you want a shower after watching. There are only brief flashes of real physical violence, but the psychological torment from both protagonists and antagonists is tough and relentless. It’s hard to believe it got made and released by a big studio back then, though this may be partially explained by the fact it was originally made by an independent production company before the money ran out and Twentieth Century Fox’s Richard Zanuck agreed to help them finish it off.
It’s hard to tear yourself away from the screen, despite the film’s disturbing atmosphere. The cast is superb and Peerce’s improvisational work with them in rehearsals paid off as there’s a terrifying naturalism to the delivery. Musante and Sheen are particularly strong as two of cinema’s most reprehensible characters. It was Sheen’s feature film debut, paving the way for his long-running and hugely successful career. It deserves to be known as one of the high points within Sheen’s filmography but has unfortunately been pushed aside in favour of his high profile work.
Overall then, it’s an intense and searing indictment of selfishness and bystander apathy. It’s a brutal and nasty film that is hardly light-entertainment but will cause you to reflect on who you really are. Would you do anything in that situation? I hate to say it, but I probably wouldn’t and I’d say a lot of you would be lying if you said you would. Powerful stuff.
The Incident is out on 12th August on dual-format Blu-ray and DVD in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Eureka Classics series. It’s not the most detailed picture I’ve seen, but that might be down to the film stock used rather than any restoration work or digitisation. The audio is solid.
You get quite a few special features added to the package:
– 1080p high-definition digital transfer, available for the first time ever on Blu-ray
– Uncompressed monaural soundtrack (on Blu-ray)
– Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
– Brand new and exclusive audio commentary by film critic and writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas
– Audio Commentary with Director Larry Peerce and Film Historian Nick Redman - Isolated music and effects track
– Post-screening Q&A with director Larry Peerce, filmed at the 2017 Wisconsin Film Festival [30 mins]
– Original Theatrical Trailer
– PLUS: a collector’s booklet featuring new writing by film writer Samm Deighan, and critic and journalist Barry Forshaw; Welcome to Fear City: A Survival Guide for Visitors to the City of New York a reprint of the notorious pamphlet distributed at the height of New York’s crime epidemic
The commentaries are excellent and perfectly complement each other. The commentary with Peerce is filled with anecdotes and memories of the shoot, revealing interesting information about the filming process. Heller-Nicholas’ commentary, on the other hand, takes an analytical approach, digging into what Peerce might be trying to say as well as providing interesting background and asides about the cast and crew.
The Q&A with Peerce covers much of the ground he laid in the commentary so isn’t all that valuable, though it makes a nicely concise alternative.
The booklet is excellent as always, providing detailed thoughts on the film and where it emerged from in American and cinematic history.