Film scholars have written extensively about 1967 being the year when the “Old Hollywood” of traditional mainstream moviemaking collided with the freer and edgier emerging currents of maverick “New Hollywood” trends dealing with harsher, more adult material and guerrilla-style techniques reacting to the social and political upheavals of the era. In addition to sexual relationships and racial tensions, depictions of violence became a touchstone point of controversy. A handful of movies that year earned critical favor and large audiences dealing with such themes, while other worthy efforts fell through the grating and went underground before their merits came to light. The Incident (1967) is one such movie, literally an accelerating underground-and-elevated-tracks excursion aboard a nocturnal New York subway train, where the walking wounded are forced to confront their own demons and fears by the onset of imminent danger. Independently made but studio-distributed, it was raw, in-your-face and remarkably gripping, even as it provoked one – just as many of its imperiled characters – to turn away, possibly because those same characters bring similar types of emotional and background baggage to what they presume will be a brisk, uneventful crosstown ride as the audience does.
For this cinematic adaption of the 1963 telefilm Ride with Terror, scripted in both cases by Nicholas E. Baehr (representing his one big-screen effort from a prolific TV writing career), the “new guard” was represented by director Larry Peerce, who had under his belt eight years of TV experience (including multiple episodes of Batman, The Green Hornet and The Monkees) and one acclaimed, independent feature (One Potato, Two Potato, about a challenged mixed-rage marriage, for which he was nominated for Best Director honors at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival). The new-to-movies faces on view included Martin Sheen (his film debut) and Tony Musante (his second film, recreating his role from the 1963 telefilm) as two pitiless, narcissistic hoodlums who capriciously board the train and wreak havoc on the defenseless souls they encounter, and Donna Mills in her maiden movie foray, plus rising actors with a few previous screen credits like Beau Bridges, Ruby Dee, Robert Fields, Brock Peters and a TV personality not known as an actor – but delivering the goods here – named Ed McMahon. The “veteran contingent” among the jeopardized, shown in a new, unvarnished light via the spectacular black-and-white cinematography of Gerald Hirschfeld (Fail-Safe, Young Frankenstein), featured Jack Gilford, Mike Kellin, Gary Merrill, Jan Sterling and the much beloved, six-time Academy Award® nominee Thelma Ritter. The combined effort of the claustrophobic staging and Peerce’s deft handling of the intense rehearsal process, which incorporated elements of improvisation and flashpoint emotionalism, startles and mesmerizes in equal measure. Though largely filmed on a detailed subway car set recreation, the blending of “stolen” footage of train and street locations is seamless, adding up to a portrait of metropolitan menace that feels utterly real 50 years later. The Incident has emerged from its underground fate and into the critical conversation again. Last Spring, it was shown at the TCM Film Festival in Hollywood and New York’s Film Forum to audience appreciation of the unique time capsule view of grim urban life it provided. Historian Lesley Coffin’s exhaustive article in conjunction with that Big Apple 50th anniversary screening is an invaluable read, accessible here: https://moviesfilmcinema.com/2017/04/26/50-years-after-the-incident-director-larry-peerces-films-still-too-relevant/. Peerce would go on to make other films of stature and substance (Goodbye, Columbus, A Separate Peace, The Other Side of the Mountain), but the 86-year-old veteran takes particular pride in The Incident, sharing insights into its making with Twilight Time’s Nick Redman in an Audio Commentary conversation featured on the film’s upcoming hi-def Blu-ray, careening into the station February 20. Preorders open February 7.