Twilight Time: The Incident (1967) - Reviewed

A group of fourteen passengers from all over the Bronx on a New York City subway train see their simple trip home transform into a claustrophobic waking nightmare when two young hoodlums (seen murdering an elderly man earlier) board the train and proceed to terrorize everyone.  As they commit every crime under the sun, from homophobia to racism, sexual assault and battery of a homeless man, probably the greatest horror of all is the terrified group’s collective inability to intervene.  Drawing heavily from the recently coined ‘Genovese Syndrome’ involving the murder of a young woman with allegedly thirty-eight witnesses failing to respond to her cries for help, director Larry Peerce’s largely forgotten and still timely 1967 chamber piece The Incident takes the study of this social psychological phenomenon to its fullest possible extreme.  

Based upon Nicholas E. Baehr’s 1963 teleplay Ride with Terror with additional characters of varying ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations included to intensify the already tense proceedings, The Incident is among the scariest thrillers that isn’t a horror movie.  Boasting an ensemble cast of characters, one of the film’s greatest strengths is how it introduces each passenger, already dealing with their own personal foibles and fears which become splintered when faced by the two thugs.  Despite the diversity of the ensemble cast, each and every one of these people are met with completely unacceptable criminal behavior yet their mutual cowardice prevents anyone from acting.  Like a simmering pot cooking until it’s ready to explode, the question becomes whether or not someone will find the courage to stand up to these hoodlums and who will it be?

Minimalist in size with the cast and much of the film confined to the boxcar yet massive in sociological scope, you the viewer become just as helpless as the victimized thanks to Larry Peerce and cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld’s gritty yet dynamic visual approach.  Shot in stark, grainy black and white by the same man who would give Young Frankenstein its late ‘30s sepia look, the film achieves a documentary level of realism despite being a clearly theatrical piece on one stage.  Using tight, confrontational close-ups with the actors often looking directly into the camera, you feel cornered by these man and find yourself asking how would you respond under these circumstances? 

Reportedly the New York City Transit Authority with the police denied the filmmakers permission to shoot on location, balking at the notion of domestic terrorism occurring on one of their trains, forcing the filmmakers to undertake a mixture of guerilla style and studio backlot artifice.  Sneaking in shots without permits caught by hidden cameras in bags right under the noses of watchful police, most of The Incident takes place on a painstakingly recreated St. Louis Car Co. boxcar with rear projected screens and carefully placed lights to give the illusion of the train moving.  While at times the rear projections can stick out like a sore thumb, the energy on the set thanks to the intensity of the performances is so strong you find yourself not caring about the budgetary limitations.

It goes without saying, of course, The Incident wouldn’t be half as powerful without the crucial casting.  Boasting a number of veterans as well as newcomers, the cast is a smorgasbord of young and old thrown together in an inescapable rat trap.  Reprising his role from the teleplay and making his big screen debut as vicious thug Joe Ferrone is Tony Musante (The Bird with a Crystal Plumage), who flies and twirls about the boxcar bumping into passengers when he isn’t encroaching on their personal spaces. 

From his boorish mug which flaps about just shy of a drunken slur and eyes that seem to bulge out of their sockets, Musante is dripping with menace from the moment we see him, almost like a wild animal with a half-hearted interest in feeding.  Joining his side in his big screen debut is a very young Martin Sheen, years before becoming one of America’s most renowned actors.  The more methodical of the two with no shortness on malevolence, paired alongside Musante the duo exude such danger it manages to render nearly everyone helpless.

Among the helpless is an eclectic cast with television personality Ed MacMahon in a bit of stunt casting as a middle-aged father with a child, veterans Jack Gilford and Thelma Ritter as a Jewish couple, To Kill a Mockingbird star Brock Peters and Ruby Dee (Mother Sister in Do the Right Thing) as an African American couple, Beau Bridges and Robert Bannard as two soldiers and Jan Sterling with her nebbish husband played by Mike Kellin, and a timid gay man played by Robert Fields. 

Each performer provides dedicated portrayals of their back histories which are tested upon boarding the train.  As aforementioned, we’re treated to an introduction to each set of characters before boarding the train, informing the viewer of their weaknesses before turning them loose with the thugs.  It would have been very easy to paint everyone as guiltless victims, but The Incident gives each character a checkered past with arguably the thugs functioning as a catalyst to bring the passengers’ worst tendencies out into the open air. 

Despite the film’s timeless power and curious relevance when taken into context with our current political climate, The Incident nearly died twice.  After shooting began on an independent production, financing fell through after a few scenes had been shot and the film was shut down for about a month.  20th Century Fox, however, swooped in and rescued the film, giving the makers carte blanche to finish the film as originally intended without the preexisting budgetary concerns. 

After premiering, the film’s fate was sealed by the soon-to-be excommunicated New York Times critic Bosley Crowther whose negative review knocked it off the Awards circuit and ensured the picture’s eventual fade into obscurity.  Decades went by and after Peerce’s film directing career came to an end with the ill-conceived John Belushi “biopic” Wired, The Incident and its réalisateur were almost completely forgotten until the film was given new life thanks to a 4K restoration and limited home video release by Twilight Time, allowing a new generation of cinephiles to discover this intense little number for themselves.

Seen now, yes certain elements of the film do show their age, such as a now politically incorrect advertisement posited in the boxcar concerning working for the mentally disabled.  Also moviegoers quick to talk back at the movie screen when characters in horror movies make dumb decisions will invariably balk at how long it takes for someone to stand up to these creeps despite being more than completely outnumbered.  That said, what we have here is a character study which brings various walks of life with their own respective prejudices and vices put to a fight for survival while exposing the weaknesses of their convictions.  We all would like to tell ourselves we would act differently than this subset of people in this particular situation, but as the fierce, psychotic eyes of Joe Ferrone stare into our souls, just what would you do when faced with that?  The Incident doesn’t have all the answers but boldly dares to ask the question.

- Andrew Kotwicki