Who hasn’t experienced it and felt that unmistakable clammy unease? The football hooligans singing up a storm on the train; drunken revellers on the night bus who make everyone squirm. This black-and-white drama takes this everyday incident and puts it under the spotlight. And it’s hugely effective.
New York City late Sunday night, early Monday morning; the mood is set with some fine rain-slicked night photography (Gerald Hirschfeld) and a jangly jazz score (Terry Knight). Hoodlums Joe (Tony Musante) and Artie (Martin Sheen making his movie debut) have just mugged, and maybe killed, a man for a lousy eight dollars. High on booze and pills they jump the downtown subway train from the Bronx to Times Square.
Meanwhile others are getting ready to catch the same late train home: a squabbling older couple (Thelma Ritter and Jack Gilford); two young lovers, she moody, he coercive (Donna Mills and Victor Arnold); a gay man (Robert Fields); a poorly-paid teacher and his dissatisfied social climbing wife (Mike Kellin and Jan Sterling); a guy on the wagon (Gary Merrill); a black couple coming from a civil rights meeting (Brock Peters and Ruby Dee), the man bubbling with rage, a putative Black Panther; two off-duty squaddies (Beau Bridges and Robert Bannard); a married couple (Ed McMahon and Diana van de Vlis) with their sleeping five-year-old. All human life is here, wrapped up in their own troubles until an outside force intervenes…
All are threatened with the demonic antics of the Droog-like Joe and Artie with no way to escape. It’s 12 Angry Men meets Alien. By turns the yobs goad and humiliate the passengers one by one. Who among them will confront the juvenile delinquents, fingers only a twitch away from their switchblades?
The film works metaphorically too. What happens when decent people are threatened and fear keeps them rooted in the spot unable to do the right thing? Students of psychology will recall the seminal Kitty Genovese case where a woman being murdered in New York screamed and screamed yet no one came to her aid or phoned the police.
There’s a fine ensemble cast coming from different acting backgrounds. Merrill was a former Mr Bette Davis and he and Ritter appeared in All About Eve. Sheen and Musante were steeped in the Method. The diversity works – helped through an improvised script. As the train hurtles downtown the tension ramps up and some of it makes for uncomfortable viewing even today.
Back when this issue-based movie was released it was looking a tad dated. In 1967 youthful violence was being glorified in movies like Bonnie and Clyde and racial division was being explored with greater nuance in In the Heat of the Night. But The Incident is a well-crafted thriller that still shocks and is still all too relevant saying something quite profound about the dangers of being beaten into submission by cowardly bullies.
Available on dual format Blu-ray/ DVD from Mon 12 Aug 2019.