On the evidence of The Incident, more people should know the name Larry Peerce.
A lesser known product of the burgeoning New Hollywood Wave that emerged out of the classic studio system, The Incident is filled with well known players from earlier eras and projects to come – Brock Peters, Ruby Dee, Gary Merrill, Thelma Ritter and principally a vital turn by a young, emerging Martin Sheen, some years away from the career and life-defining experience of Apocalypse Now. As a character drama, it hangs on performances which belie the fairly low-fi, low-budget, almost TV movie approach Peerce was forced to employ, yet he frequently evolves beyond in his direction. This ends up theatrical, close-quartered, tense and to an extent ground-breaking in what it achieves with so little.
The Incident feels quite ahead of its time in how it brings together an ensemble cast and places them inside a bottleneck; a nightmarish, relatable situation filled with people in the wrong place at the wrong time, terrorised by a pair of wayward, New York thugs played by Sheen (this was his first film role) and Tony Musante, who is particularly mesmerising in how he physically and psychologically breaks down an assorted collection of late night travellers on a New York subway train. Peerce introduces the incendiary pair and then allows his film to steadily build, casting a pallor of dread over the first forty minutes as we await the titular incident.
What follows, in the final hour, ranks among the most nail-chewing, protracted escalating dramas of brewing violence and social deconstruction committed to celluloid.
Consider the era this was made. The 1960’s simply did not deal with the kind of themes and conflicts Peerce places on screen with The Incident.
His film arrived in the slipstream of challenging, ground-breaking pictures such as Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde, which redefined what mainstream cinema could deliver upon audiences when it came to violence in particular. The Incident is a very different kind of film, far less darkly elegant and showstopping than Penn’s film—free of galactic stars such as Beatty or Dunaway—but it defiantly refuses to play it safe. When New York train officials refused to allow Peerce to film on the real subway, laughably considering abhorrent the idea that such violence and intimidation as depicted in the film could ever happen, Peerce shot wide and long, working around his constraints and building a small, enclosed and claustrophobic subway train to ratchet up the tension.
In lesser hands, the first third of The Incident could easily have suffered. It is necessarily fragmented, after a striking and dark opening of Sheen & Musante’s thugs beating an innocent man half to death just for kicks, as Peerce takes time exploring the would-be subway train passengers before they come into contact with the incendiary duo. No social stone is left unturned with the assemblage – a quietly homosexual man, who is cruelly rebuked by a recovering alcoholic looking for another chance (Merrill); a middle-class black couple (Peters & Dee), the male of whom is filled with simmering rage at white people; an off-duty, injured, idealistic Army officer from the Midwest (a young Beau Bridges); a middle-class white couple with a decaying marriage; a virginial girl and her sexually strong boyfriend; an old couple, the male angry at his child’s lack of care (Ritter and Jack Gilford); and a bickering couple with an exhausted young daughter.
What leaps out from all of these fragmented narratives is a recurrent theme of angry men, for various reasons across the spectrum. Peters’ character is filled with the righteous indignation of the Civil Rights movement happening at the time the film was made – indeed Peerce insisted on a scene Peters never imagined he’d get away with, of police officers immediately believing Peters to be the bad guy simply because of his skin colour. Merrill is washed up and bitter after a lifetime, presumably, of bad life choices. Gilford’s character cannot fathom why his adult children would not treat their parents the way he would have treated his, citing a lack of respect. This goes on, exemplified by Musante’s antagonist, and Sheen’s to a lesser extent – wild examples of how counter-cultural freedom and excess for young men have a dark side.
For a film which touches on such a range of social issues, The Incident is remarkably free of judgement, both in terms of behaviour and the deeper cultural questions raised. Peerce could easily have unleashed a Civil Rights diatribe or a pre-Stonewall defence of homosexuality, even a scathing rebuke of Vietnam, but he allows the controlled drama to play out through the personalities of the assembled characters who, in a moment of terror, show the weaknesses and personal strengths of the human spirit. Some are brave, some cowardly, some using the incident as a platform for their own breakdown or revelation. The only characters who truly leave the train unchanged are the bad guys, the catalysts for Peerce’s piercing, often difficult to watch, picture.
Shot in black and white, at times with a verite sensibility and without the gloss even of many pictures around the same era, The Incident may not at first entice. Don’t be fooled. This, quietly, is one of the best pictures of the late 1960’s. It promises to ‘hit like a switchblade knife’ and that boast still feels apt today.
For a lesser known film over 50 years old, Eureka Entertainment have assembled a quality line up of extras to enhance your knowledge and understanding of The Incident here:
- 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
- Post-screening Q&A with director Larry Peerce, filmed at the 2017 Wisconsin Film Festival
- Original Theatrical Trailer
- Limited Edition Collector’s booklet featuring new writing by film writer Samm Deighan; 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 [First Print Run Only]
The Incident is now available on Blu-Ray from Eureka Entertainment.