Some films just seem to fall through the cracks.
Obviously, the reputation of a film depends on its availability. It’s been noted that the reputation of some films on the Sight and Sound Greatest Films list will rise and fall according to whether or not said film has had a Criterion release – movies on that label being an easy shorthand for lazy critics who want to know which films are ‘important’. Films that are harder to see invariably lose their reputation, because for all their alleged love of cinema, most people, understandably, are not interested in digging out rare gems. Not when you can have a culturally approved list of ‘classic’ movies handed to you instead.
The Incident was banned by the BBFC in 1968 – no great surprise at the time, given how many films annually were refused a certificate – but for some reason (perhaps because it was in black and white and so no longer commercial?) was never resubmitted in the more liberal 1970s. And it never saw a home video release either. Stranger still, the film has been equally unavailable in the US, where it continues to wallow in obscurity apart from the odd late night TV showing. It’s a film that you won’t see on many lists of cinematic greats. Few people have been agitating for its re-release. And the long-overdue DVD edition wasn’t greeted with the excitement that, say, Wake in Fright achieved. A pity. Because anyone who overlooks this movie will be missing out on one of the most incendiary movies of the 1960s, a film that resembles a collision of Last House on the Left and The Taking of Pelham 123 but has the nihilistic social savagery of the best Twilight Zone episodes. This is a brutal, bitter indictment of humanity that we can all relate to, and a proto-home invasion film, albeit one set on a train.
Based – surprisingly – on a 1963 TV film, The Incident opens with two hoodlums – and if anyone deserved that name, it’s these guys – flexing their muscles to bully a pool hall owner in New York. They are Joe Ferrante (Tony Musante) and Artie Conners (Martin Sheen). They are a typical pair of bully boys, using intimidation to get their way. Joe, arrogant, smug, massive sideburns and open shirt (he’s like a template for disco lovers a decade later) is the leader; Artie, younger, stupider, the sort you imagine would be a victim if he wasn’t hiding behind his bully boy mate, is the follower.
Exiting the pool hall, the pair mug an old man for eight dollars (Artie beating him viciously) and then head for the subway train. The film then leaves these two in order to introduce the rest of the cast of characters. We see a series of vignettes to reveal a collection of misfit, unhappy couples. There’s Bill and Helen Weeks (Ed McMahon and Diana Van der Vlis) and their child, bickering about getting a cab instead of the train and the idea of having another child; teenage girl Alice (Donna Mills) and her date, the pushy, aggressive and near-rapey Tony (Victor Arnold); elderly Jewish couple Sam and Bertha Beckerman (Jack Gilford and Thelma Ritter); two soldiers, Phillip and Felix (Robert Bannard and Beau Bridges), the latter with his arm in a cast; unhappily married couple Muriel and Harry Purvis (Jan Sterling and Mike Kellin), who exit a party and immediately start to argue about money; alcoholic Douglas McCann (Gary Merrill) and Kenneth Otis (Robert Fields), a homosexual who attempts to clumsily pick him up in the station; and African-American couple Arnold and Joan Robinson (Brock Peters and Ruby Dee) – him a black militant hater of ‘whitey’ and her a liberal social worker.
This mixed bag of people slowly fill the train carriage, and are eventually joined by Joe and Artie. At first, the two thugs are boisterous, noisy and obnoxious. But seemingly harmless. But Joe is a few steps from being the sort of murderous killer we would see in the 1970s films that took this template and intensified it – a manipulator, a psychopath and a man who doesn’t know when to stop. The pair begin to abuse a sleeping homeless drunk in the carriage, and this causes McCann – who clearly sees himself in the man – tells them to stop. At which point it all starts.
Throughout the remainder of the film, we remain trapped in this claustrophobic location, cut off from the rest of the train by a stuck connecting door. Joe and Artie systematically terrorise each person caught with them in turn, as individuals either speak up in protest or simply draw attention to themselves. The rest of the carriage – even those who had previously protested – simply looks away as one by one, the passengers are degraded, beaten, humiliated and reduced to nothing, stripped of their dignity and sense of self. Joe, the leader, has a knack for getting under the skin of everyone on the train, finding their weak points, exploiting their fears and revelling in the knowledge that he has complete power over fourteen people (or fifteen, if we count his sycophant follower Artie) who are too afraid to do anything about it.
At times, it almost feels as though his contempt is justified. Few of these people seem especially sympathetic and while they might stand up to his thuggery briefly, they are soon put in their place, either ignoring, being indifferent to or actually enjoying the degradation of their fellow passengers. So when Kenneth is being beaten, Tony’s reaction to Alice’s question of what is happening is “it just looks like they’ve caught a queer”. Similarly, Felix – a good ol’ boy from the deep south – seems initially amused by the ‘show’, and Arnold is getting a kick out of watching white folks rip each other apart (he even refuses to get off the train when he has the chance at a station stop). But they all pay for their indifference as Joe’s attention is turned to them. Tony has his macho facade stripped away, and when Arnold says “I’m with you”, Joe responds “I wouldn’t have you if you were the last man standing” before unleashing a tirade of racial abuse, eventually leaving the aggressively angry black man stripped of all bravado.
Like a lot of late Sixties black and white movies, The Incident looks like a documentary – the fact that the train exteriors were shot with hidden cameras (permission to film on the subway being unsurprisingly refused) helps, but there’s a gritty realism throughout. It’s a deeply cynical film – while not all the characters are unpleasant, they are all hypocrites, cowards and, ultimately, ungrateful when they are finally saved. The macho characters – the sleazy Tony, the bigoted Arnold and even the military men – are made to look weak and pathetic. So too, in the end, are Joe and Artie, though we knew that already. Like all petty thugs, they succeed only because they know no one will stop them. When, eventually and far too late, someone does, they are beaten down and made to cower, one half dead and the other crying like a baby.
Tightly written by Nicholas E. Baehr and directed with sweaty intensity by Larry Peerce (who’s filmography doesn’t even hint at how amazing a film this is), the film is packed with spot-on performances. Musante should’ve been a bigger star than he was, and here he is all swagger and intelligent thuggery. The reference to Last House on the Left earlier wasn’t a throwaway one – Musante brings to his role the same curious charisma and complexity that David Hess gave to Krug in that film. He dominates the screen and his character is electrifyingly terrifying. And like Krug, this is a character who gets his kicks from degradation and psychological terrorism as much as physical violence. You can imagine him graduating to rape and murder, if he isn’t already there.
Compared to him, Artie is an also-ran. Sheen, in his film debut, is perfect as the rather pathetic copy-cat bullyboy, the sort who will do anything to ingratiate himself with his role model. As for the rest of the cast – there isn’t a character or a performance out of place. This is as fine an ensemble piece as you can hope for (and watching the film, with its single location and cast of characters, you start to think that this would make for a powerful stage play).
With an impressive music score that is minimally used – much of the film is without music, but the times it is added are well chosen and the music perfect for the moment – and camera work that makes you feel as though you are there with tight close-ups of terrified faces – The Incident is genuinely remarkable. It’s possibly even more shocking now than when it was made – the homophobia and racism that is expressed by Joe and Artie in no uncertain terms will be a challenge for many, and the sexual terrorism of Alice (by both Joe and, earlier, by her supposed boyfriend) is so horribly creepy that it is hard to watch. But of course, a film like this shouldn’t play to your comfort zone – it should be difficult, horrible and mean-spirited. What it says about society – about our willingness to turn a blind eye rather than get involved – might be hard to swallow, but it’s undeniably the truth.
Savage, angry and intense, The Incident is an unexpected masterpiece. Hopefully, this release will go some way to helping it get the reputation it deserves.