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.
© 2004 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 4/7/94
USA - 1967