The Incident (Larry Peerce, 1967)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Incident.

As cynical and despairing a view of New York as you’re likely to find, Larry Peerce’s The Incident is a bitter pill clipping along a Bronx train line, gathering unsuspecting passengers and transforming them into the victims of two young thugs fresh from mugging a helpless old man. Tony Musante and Martin Sheen star as a pair of hoodlums who bait, taunt, and terrorize a melting pot of late-night commuters that includes a husband and wife with a sleeping child, a pair of young lovers, two soldiers recently returned home, an irritated Jewish couple, a bitterly anti-white African American man and his peaceful wife, and an introverted homosexual. Featuring performances by Beau Bridges, Ruby Dee, Jack Gilford, Brock Peters, Thelma Ritter, Donna Mills, and Ed McMahon, The Incident captures the social dissolution of late ’60s New York in the longest, tensest commute ever made between Mosholu Parkway and Grand Central.

Disc Features:

  • Restored 2K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New interview with director Larry Peerce
  • New interview with actor Martin Sheen
  • Ride with Terror, a 1963 teleplay for The DuPont Show of the Week written and adapted from by Nicholas E. Baehr and starring Tony Musante, Vincent Gardenia, and Gene Hackman
  • PLUS: A new essay by Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at New York’s Film Forum

Earlier this year, Film Forum screened a DCP restoration of Larry Peerce’s The Incident (1967) and followed it with a Q&A session with the director. When asked how the film fell out of circulation, Peerce commented that The Incident was an early failure on the LaserDisc format and was promptly abandoned by the studio when hard media converted to DVD and Blu-ray. The Q&A indicates that a long overdue release of The Incident was believed to be forthcoming from a boutique label. This of course led MMC! to ask, why not a Criterion Collection edition of Peerce’s deeply cynical, aggressively monochromatic thriller? After all (and in the sage words of another Criterion fan) – more movie should go criterion thank you 😉

Adapted by Nicholas E. Baehr from his own teleplay which aired in 1963 as “Ride with Terror” on The DuPont Show of the Week, Larry Peerce’s The Incident sees a pair of young thugs turn a late-night train-ride on the Third Ave. El. into a playground of abuse and terror. Tony Musante (reprising his role from the television show) and Martin Sheen (who had previously appeared on Broadway in The Subject Was Roses and who would reprise his role in that Bronx-located play for the 1968 film version) are Joe Ferrone and Artie Connors, two young men introduced by intimidating a pool hall operator, harassing a passing couple on the street, and then ambushing an old man, mugging him for a mere eight dollars and then savagely beating him. They are predators that toy with their prey – guffawing and playing innocent through their threats, drawing out their dominance while savouring the fear of their victims.

Having introduced the film’s antagonists, The Incident then spends a substantial amount of time collecting its coterie of aggravated transit-riders enduring one final commute home to close their respective nights. Strained relationships are order of the day – Bill and Helen Wilks (Ed McMahon and Diana Van der Vlis) board with their sleeping daughter after arguing over the expense of cab and the disposability of Bill’s income; Tony Goya (Victor Arnold) pressures and guilts his teenage date Alice Keenan (Donna Mills) from her chasteness and into the train car for some prolonged making out; Sam Beckerman (Jack Gilford) laments to his wife Bertha (Thelma Ritter) the lack of appreciation and generosity of their son who denies him the funds needed for a proper set of dentures; Muriel Purvis (Jan Sterling) voices her post-cocktail party resentment toward her unambitious husband Harry (Mike Kellin); struggling alcoholic Douglas McCann (Gary Merrill) and anguished homosexual Kenneth Otis (Robert Fields) board together after an unsuccessful attempt to connect in a nearby bar; and white-hating Arnold Robinson (Brock Peters) expresses his disdain for the patience of his wife Joan (Ruby Dee) after spending the night at an event for inner city youth. Only a pair of soldiers, Pfc. Phillip Carmatti (Robert Bannard) and Pfc. Felix Teflinger (Beau Bridges), enter the train in good spirits, having enjoyed a dinner with Phillip’s family before the New Yorker accompanies Teflinger, an Oklahoman with a broken arm in a cast, to Grand Central Station for a longer ride home. Having assembled its wide swath of social significances, Joe and Artie board, jam the train car’s only working exit, and tyrannize their fellow riders with little collective resistance.

The Incident trades heavily on the understood rule of city living, particularly New York living – avoid eye contact and resist engagement at all cost. Current reviewers often express a lack of realism to this conceit, suggesting that today’s Gothamites (and even those of the period) would stand up to the abuses Joe and Artie rain down on their fellow passengers, but Baehr’s screenplay carefully organizes the passivity of the train car’s passengers. When Artie begins his abuse by first attempting to rouse a drunk passed out on a bench seat (Henry Proach), Douglas intercedes but is forced to submit when Joe intimidates him. Douglas looks around the car for help and finds his silent plea met with downcast eyes that suggests that the drunk alongside McCann is not worth the trouble. It’s a canny exchange that roots the train ride’s blindered views – Joe and Artie’s abuse is usually specific enough to mute the objection of others. They needle their riders over their sexual preference (Otis), their age (the Beckermans), their promiscuity (Tony and Alice), their class (Muriel), and their race (Arnold), driving their victims to hysterics and exhaustion while defining their battles as individually specific. It is only when Artie turns his attention on the Wilks’ sleeping daughter that Pfc. Felix takes action and even then it is solitary. Roger Ebert called The Incident “[s]ort of an urban Western,” thinking of Joe and Artie as “outlaws.” In its way, The Incident plays out like High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952) with a rotating cast of sheriffs taking turns struggling to find support among their fellow citizens.

Felix’s intervention incapacitates Joe and Artie but he is wounded in the process, perhaps even mortally, yet his sacrifice inspires no community amongst the riders. Despite a palpable air of shame, the train’s occupants conspicuously step over and around the unconscious derelict who then lays sprawled on the car’s floor. The wilful blindness at the core of The Incident recalls the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese outside her apartment building in Kew Gardens, Queens, while her indifferent neighbours were (apocryphally) unmoved by her screams. The cross-section of social conflicts organized within the train car suggest broader aims by Baehr and Peerce than considering bystander apathy. The civil rights movement, the generation gap, the sexual revolution, and the Vietnam War all figure prominently as sources of division that in turn become mechanisms for tacit oppression. In doing so, Baehr and Peerce take the “eyes down” ethos of urban survival and leverage it into a theatrical statement on a fractioning and self-interested socio-political climate that will find solutions only in personal responsibility and not popular action.

The heavy-handed conveniences of the film’s screenplay populating the train ride with an array of socially conscious metaphors operates in pleasing dissonance with the grimy realism of The Incident‘s mise-en-scène. Early scenes in the Academy Pool Hall, under the Westinghouse Whiteways streetlights of 170th Street, and at various other locations in the Bronx section of the IRT Third Avenue Line are gorgeously rendered in noirish chiaroscuro by pedigreed cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld. (Jan Sterling’s legs pacing a trough into the concrete subway platform while her nebbish husband primly sits on a bench looking up at her is glorious.) The New York City Transit Authority unsurprisingly refused to participate in the production of this nightmare advertisement for public transportation and so Hirschfeld shot backgrounds on Transit property with a hidden camera. The Incident‘s primary location is a stage set replicating an IRT World’s Fair Lo-V #5674 railcar (blueprints obtained from the St. Louis Car Co.) and lit to appear as travelling at 30 mph. Save for the fact that the ride takes less time than as represented in the film, Peerce creates an air of verisimilitude that stands up against the film’s allegorical theatricality.

The Incident is certainly an unusual film and those denying it a place in the Collection would likely cite a clunkiness in its plot. Story, performance, and editing frequently display the film’s mechanics, inevitably showing the train’s occupants as representatives of type rather than flesh and blood characters and the conceit of their arrangement on this late night sojourn as a stagey coincidence. Still, Peerce creates a film with the same propulsive momentum as the train car itself, finding a kind of pressure cooker charisma in the claustrophobic alchemy of Joe and Artie’s abuse. The result is a quintessentially New York film that is both distinctly local and decidedly global in its view.

The Incident has Region 2 and 4 DVD editions but still lacks a modern version in its native North America. A Criterion release of the film would not just satisfy a small group of film fans who haven’t forgotten Peerce’s film, but it would effectively reintroduce the title to cineastes looking for the next great New York movie they’ve never heard of. With its gritty feel and its array of memorable faces, we like Italian illustrator Massimo Carnevale for a potential Criterion cover treatment of The Incident. Carnevale’s portfolio is full of cinema portraits and has a decided affinity for subjects in rough circumstances. His Taxi Driver and Saturday Night Fever works display his knack for alienated, New York, street worn content. The Collection loves its New York stories and so a union between Peerce’s The Incident, Massimo Carnevale, and the Criterion Collection sounds like a match made in five boroughs heaven.

Credits: Bruce Goldstein, moderator of the Film Forum Q&A session with Larry Peerce and a frequent contributor to the Collection, was naturally chosen to provide an essay for this edition. (Check out Goldstein’s monochrome Top 10 on the Criterion website.) We’re hopeful that a copy of Ride With Terror still exists for inclusion, allowing for a comparison of Musante’s performances. This essay owes debts to Roger Ebert’s 1968 review, Heather Drain’s review at Dangerous Minds, Doug/PoMo Joan’s essay at Boiling Sand, Rob Mammone’s DVD review at Impulse GamerCigar Joe Ottulich’s discussion at Noirsville, and the Editor’s Pick entry at Alt Screen.


7 thoughts on “The Incident (Larry Peerce, 1967)

  1. Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman) July 4, 2017 / 12:57 pm

    My dad was a big fan of this movie and shared it during my teen years. It has haunted me as a lifestyle transit user. There isn’t a late night on the TTC where this movie doesn’t cross my mind.

    • spinenumbered July 4, 2017 / 1:21 pm

      That’s great! (The association with your dad, not the haunting.) My next proposal will specifically be a favourite film of my dad, so your comment is well timed and very appreciated. 🙂

  2. jnvahtola August 4, 2017 / 6:35 pm

    As it happens, “The Incident” was broadcast yesterday in Finland on HDTV. I must say the transfer looked very good even with the limited transfer bit-rate available on aerial broadcast. On Blu-ray, this restoration (I presume it’s the same used for the DCP you mentioned) should look excellent when the file size is allowed to go up to 30 GB.

    I uploaded a few screenshots from yesterday’s HD broadcast:

    In Finland, this movie is also known as “The Terrorists” (translated distribution title: “Terroristit – Terroristerna”).

    • spinenumbered August 4, 2017 / 7:10 pm

      Thanks for this! It’s really interesting how that title was translated – a much more alarming title compared to the understated American one. Cheers!

  3. DLB November 2, 2018 / 8:14 am

    This movie is classic.

    I wish you hadn’t spoiled the ending for those cinephiles who’ve yet to see it (it’s always posted in YouTube, but that’s pirated).

    There film is riveting specifically because we, the viewer, don’t know what’s going to happen to these folks– will ANYONE stand up to these hoodlums? Of course I wished someone would have, but ultimately hoped not because I know about the switchblade, but the riders on the subway car didn’t.

    Giving away the ending is a shame.
    As Ebert said in one article, it’s interesting to find out which one of the victims stands up to them. Giving away the name of the “hero” is, as stated above, a shame.

    I hope you consider omitting it from your post.

    • spinenumbered November 2, 2018 / 12:49 pm

      Thanks for your comment DLB. I really appreciate your concern regarding spoilers.

      Spoilers are a topic I’m very aware of and my approach is situational, depending on the age of the film, its circulation, and the potential significance of the “spoiling.” Personally, spoilers are rarely of any real significance to my enjoyment of a film. Often, my goal with these posts is to provide something that serves as both promotion and liner notes. In many cases, these posts function as brief, but close readings of these films and require more detailed discussion to unpack their themes or significances. My hope is that MMC! readers expect such close readings in these discussions, much as they might expect the in a booklet essay to a CC edition.

      In my view, the identity of The Incident’s ultimate “hero” is fairly obvious throughout the film. What is less obvious and more important to film’s significance is who aren’t heroes and how they react to their saviour. That to me is the film’s crux and what I hoped to explore with the post.

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