The Incident

The Incident is a thought provoking and incisive look at confrontation and collective community responsibility

The Incident is a 1967 American thriller written by Nicholas E. Baehr (based on his teleplay Ride with Terror, previously adapted as a 1963 television film) and directed by Larry Peerce. With a stellar ensemble cast, Peerce attempts to create something that only a select few filmmakers had been able to achieve up until that point, provoke in depth discussion and social discourse through a single location narrative.

Joe (Tony Musante) and Artie (Martin Sheen) are two street thugs who terrorise a number of passengers as they all share a New York Subway car. The two men start their night off with a shocking crime which only hints at the true violence and menace to follow. A disparate grouping of people have the unfortunate luck of crossing paths with Joe and Artie as they make their way back to their homes early in morning. The subway car slowly fills with a cross-section of society including young lovers, Alice (Donna Mills) and Tony (Victor Arnold), older Jewish couple Sam (Jack Gilford) and Bertha (Thelma Ritter), recovering alcoholic Douglas McCann (Gary Merrill), African-American couple Arnold (Brock Peters) and Joan (Ruby Dee) and two soldiers Felix (Beau Bridges) and Phillip (Robert Bannard). The first two passengers who fall victim to Tony and Artie however, is a sleeping and obviously drunk and derelict man (Henry Proach) and Kenneth (Robert Fields) who suffers relentless homophobic abuse from both men.

Made more than five decades ago, The Incident remains an uncompromising and brutal viewing experience. The audience is forced to be a voyeuristic participant in scenarios of mean-spirited confrontation and menace that most would usually actively refrain from. The viewer and passengers of the subway car are left shocked and impotent to react effectively to their abusers. There is an atmosphere of disbelief at the initial borderline behaviour that slowly builds and boils into something with significantly more malice. It is debatable how modern audiences would interpret the lack of response from the separate passenger groupings as we would arguably believe that our responses would be unified and immediate towards any form of bullying and assault. This assessment would be naïve though as the severity and duration of the torment and cruelty is quite nebulas and difficult to gauge initially. The audience is asked time and time again: What would you do? Where do you draw the line? Who would you defend? and Peerce has a well thought out response for each possible answer.

The Incident is unrelenting and surprising in its social commentary as all the male victims are mostly responsible for their inclusion in the violence as they make decisions, against the better judgement of their female partners, to travel via subway instead of other means of transport. The male protagonists themselves show signs of misogyny, sexism and ageism and there are no true male innocents here. Peerce also made an incredibly astute, yet controversial decision to have Arnold, the only African-America male, play an unrepentant and blatant racist who enjoys the depravity and inhumanity dished out until it is his turn to be victimised. Arnold’s loud, aggressive bravado becoming a tear-filled whimper when he receives no assistance for him and his wife. There are loud echoes of real life posturing falling away as his resistance fades to nothing and we are left with only platitudes and violence.

The conclusion of The Incident is absolutely pitch perfect and grounded completely within the boundaries set and reality created. The arrival of the police, which should lead to respite and relief, only serves to cause more distress and confusion with the pinnacle of the violence already passed. The profound subtext of injured authority, in the wake of Vietnam anti-war sentiment, finally rising up to protect the people is perhaps the most blatant of observations in a film layered in nuance and consequence.

The new release of The Incident has a crisp and beautifully sharp transfer that compliments the claustrophobic cinematography of Gerald Hirschfield and Larry Peerce’s compelling direction. Two commentaries are included as Film Historian Nick Redman and Director Larry Peerce discuss the unique challenges that went into making The Incident as well as a 30-minute Q&A from the 2017 Wisconsin Film Festival.

Author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas provides the second commentary which explores the film’s perspective on sexual politics, violence and continued cinematic relevance.

The disc also includes an original trailer and a booklet with literature by Samm Deighan and Barry Forshaw along with a reprint of a “survival guide” pamphlet which was circulated in New York in the 1960s.


Updated: Sep 15, 2019

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