Wednesday Editor’s Pick: The Incident (1967)

by on July 18, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed July 20 at 7:00 and Sun July 24 at 9:00 at Anthology Film Archives [Program & Tix]


Every summer, filmmaker and founder of Blue Underground Bill Lustig curates a great selection of 60s & 70s grindhouse films for Anthology. This year’s batch, playing through Sunday July 24, is a great way to beat the heat and catch some real curios that have never been released on home video.


Larry Peerce’s vicious rendition of your worst MTA nightmare, The Incident,  is a fascinating dispatch from a Hollywood finally, flagrantly, defying the Production Code (meanwhile, Pre-Code shenanigans continue at Film Forum) – although make no mistake, this is no quaint taboo-breaker.  A debuting Martin Sheen and unhinged Tony Musante play a duo of batshit subway terrorizers for the ages. The innocent bystanders include  an eclectic mix of familiar faces: Beau Bridges, Ruby Dee, Donna Mills,  Thelma Ritter, Brock Peters, and (you better believe it) Ed McMahon.  Essential viewing for every New York commuter?


Cinespect has a great guide to the entire William Lustig series. Charles H. Meyer on The Incident:

Larry Peerce’s “The Incident” is easily the most unsettling of these films. Although released forty-four years ago, it still retains its power to shock. Set almost entirely on a single New York subway car, its atmosphere is suffocating, claustrophobic and bleak. The film opens with a pre-credits sequence in which we meet Artie Connors and Joe Ferrone, a pair of shouting, pool-playing, guffawing psychopaths played by Martin Sheen and Tony Musante, both appearing on the big screen for the first time. After Artie and Joe demonstrate their violent, unpredictable behavior, we leave them, and the opening credits appear. The film then proceeds to introduce us to a series of New Yorkers, mostly in pairs, each coincidentally having just reached a state of particular vulnerability. Set at night and shot beautifully in black and white, capturing the glistening of wet streets as only black and white cinematography can, the film has both the classic look of ‘50s film noir, as well as the sense of urban alienation evoked by most such films. Aware, of course, that the film has chosen Artie and Joe to be its antagonists, we watch in anticipation and dread as a subway train speeds along, picking up the inhabitants of one or another sub-plot at each stop, knowing as we do that Artie and Joe are due to arrive once all the potential victims have filed in. When they finally do arrive, the abject cruelty to which they subject their already wounded fellow passengers is not nearly as horrifying as the passivity of those passengers, their unwillingness to join together in solidarity against Artie and Joe.



Monica Sullivan for Movie Magazine International:

The first ten minutes of Larry Peerce’s “The Incident” draw us into the grim world of two sadistic jerks played by 31-year-old Tony Musante and 27-year-old Martin Sheen in their film debuts. Then we meet a series of couples who are about to board a New York subway. Diana Van der Vlis wants to take a taxi but her husband (Ed McMahon, in a surprisingly effective performance) grumbles about the expense and insists on a less expensive route home. A couple in their sixties (Thelma Ritter and Jack Gilford) bicker all the way to the station. Ruby Dee tries to calm down her angry husband, Black activist Brock Peters. Robert Fields makes an attempt to pick up Gary Merrill, who seems interested at first, then terrified at the implications. Mike Kellin is convinced that his wife Jan Sterling had been making passes at everyone at a cocktail party. A young couple, Victor Arnold and 23-year-old Donna Mills, make out before boarding the subway car. And local soldier Bob Bannard introduces an Oklahoma soldier with a broken arm (brilliantly played by 25-year-old Beau Bridges) to New York City night life.


Director Peerce had made his remarkable directing debut in 1964 with the award-winning interracial love story “One Potato, Two Potato”, also beautifully filmed in black and white. Peerce’s early, more personal works placed extremely complex characters against sharply critiqued contemporary American landscapes and “The Incident” is no exception. Once everyone is settled on the subway for the ride home, Musante and Sheen proceed to terrorise everyone on the train. They seize on the passengers’ most obvious fears (sexuality, race, age) & strip away every illusion of pride or courage in all but one person. “The Incident” has few flattering observations to make about this group of strangers on the subway. It’s hardly an advertisement for public transportation and there are no feel-good remedies for the internal and actual violence ignited by Musante’s and Sheen’s characters.


“The Incident” reveals the urban despair and dissolving community ties of the late sixties as few films of that era did. Musante and Sheen played archtypical punks: we had seen their like before and would see them again. But “The Incident” showed something far more disturbing. No one was going to make our private worlds all better again with homilies and heroism. Private solutions might be found to combat the evils in the night, but the social order and harmony would not be restored by them. “The Incident” is a timeless and eerie look into the world of the future made as the once-mighty Hollywood studios of the past were collapsing.


Matt Brunson for Creative Loafing:

This hard-hitting film from 1967 proves to be the sort of raw drama that, sad to say, never loses its topicality. So constricted that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t a stage play first (the script was penned by TV series vet Nicholas E. Baehr), the film stars Tony Musante and Martin Sheen (in his film debut) as two NYC street thugs who corner several passengers on a subway car and proceed to brutalize and humiliate them. Someone like Dirty Harry (or even Billy Jack) would only need 10 seconds, tops, to lay waste to these punks, but most of the passengers adopt a mind-my-own-business passivity that not only allows the abuse to continue indefinitely but also encourages some of the victims to turn on each other. Director Larry Peerce establishes a mood of jangly tension by allowing several of his actors to play to the rafters (or, in Musante’s case, to the stratosphere), and during its best moments, the film’s gritty efficiency brings to mind early Scorsese or Cassavetes.



An interview with Lustig, over at the L Mag:

CRAIG HUBERT: The Anthology Film Archives series always brings a lot of excitement among cinephiles. How did the series originate? Did they approach you or did you go to them with the idea?

WILLIAM LUSTIG: Well, it’s kind of a combination of both. Back in 2007, I was was approached by Anthology, who wanted to do a New York vigilante series. And of course, having made the movieVigilante, I guess I was the first phone call. In the course of getting to know them, I happened to mention, “You know, nobody has ever done a series which honor these incredible movies from the ’70s and ’60s.” For one reason or another, normally because of music clearance problems, these movies, which really deserve to be seen, have just languished.

HUBERT: What is the process of choosing the films in the series?

LUSTIG: The simple process is I have these memories of having seen these movies when they first came out. Back in the late ’60s, and through the ’70s, I was an insatiable filmgoer. I would see, on 42nd Street—I could easily see six to ten movies a day.



LUSTIG: I mean, back in the ’70s, New York was the mecca for film. I could go on and on with all the repertory cinemas that were around. Now they’re all vanished, pretty much. We had them on every corner—we had the Bleecker Street Cinema, we had the Thalia, we had the Carnegie Hall Cinema, there was the Fifth Avenue Cinema, Eighth Street Playhouse, all these wonderful cinemas dedicated to repertory. So I was blessed with the opportunity to see all these films on the big screen, and it’s just disappointed me with home media, these films have either been neglected by being put out panned-and-scanned, really shitty copies, or just haven’t been put out at all.


Doug Bonner for his blog Boiling Sand:

Like a love-child of Joan Didion and Martin Scorsese, THE INCIDENT etched a portrait of entropy in American society in the 1960s, played out inside a Bronx-to-Grand Central subway car, by the rage of a couple of hoods and their threatened, humiliated victims.


An independent production shot at night on the streets of the Bronx and in a mockup of an IRT subway car (permission wasn’t granted by the transit system to film on the real thing), THE INCIDENT in retrospect is a benchmark of the hierarchial fall and readjusted playing field of the U.S. by the end of the ‘sixties:  a time which wrought the most political, societal and artistic social chance since perhaps the Renaissance.


For, as the concept of this film dramatized the devolution of what was then identified as American Society, its execution spelled out previously hidden aspects of the U.S. that became visible through the fractures.


The rebel filmmaking employed in shooting night-for-night on the streets of New York boroughs and the handheld shots inside the claustrophobic car said as much about societal change as the subway’s new pecking order, where those with the loudest voices and least regard for others get to have their way.


And in this respect, THE INCIDENT went straight for the jugular.  With the fall of ‘polite’ society, those who had been subtly and invisibly oppressed were now openly humiliated.  The lone Gay guy (Robert Fields) was the first to be singled out and harassed.  The African-American couple (Ruby Dee and Brock Peters) was humiliated into subservience.  An elderly couple (Thelma Ritter and Jack Gilford), who attempted physically to battle the hoodlums, was broken into wimpering submission.


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