This will have happened to you, it’s happened to everyone. You’re traveling home late at night and you decide to take public transport. Maybe it’s a train, maybe it’s a tube, maybe it’s a bus but as soon as you get on board you realise that something isn’t right. You should have got a cab, you should have left earlier, you should have stayed at your friends. Too late you’re here now and then they get on board.
All human beings have a fine tuned radar for trouble that can sense it as soon as it arrives whatever form it takes. Once trouble comes especially in a small confined space like a train carriage it can soon affect everyone on board. The question is what do you do? Turn away, turn a page in your book, turn up your headphones or when things start getting out of hand do you do something?
1967 urban thriller The Incident tackles this question in an extreme snap shot of the underbelly of New York where racism, sexism and homophobia are rife and the thin layer or civility can be easily pierced by a couple of knife carrying crazies keen on causing chaos just for kicks.
The disgusting duo are Joe and Artie played by The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’s Tony Musante and acting icon Martin Sheen making his feature film debut. Young, dumb and determined to spread mayhem the pair wander the city streets at 2am on a Sunday looking for thrills. Mugging and beating an innocent man to a pulp just because he only had a few dollars on him they head for the train station to see what they can find.
Meanwhile a cross section of society is also heading home on the same train all of them unaware of what is to come. The collected carriage includes an elderly bickering Jewish couple, a family and their 5-year-old daughter, a recovering alcoholic who has just been given a chance of redemption, two teens on a date one who is more amorous than the other, two military Privates, a teacher and his weary wife, an African-American couple and a quiet young man out looking for company.
The thugs start by teasing and torturing a paralytic drunk passed out on the seats while everyone watches in fear saying and doing nothing. As things get more extreme someone stands up to them and so begins an intense and raw assault on everyone on-board including the audience.
Interestingly very few of the victims are sympathetic initially and the introduction we receive of each of them in their amble towards the doomed train reveals petty disputes, selfish motivations, greed, vanity and lecherous intent. Once the incident begins however all are equal and their petty sins seem nothing compared to the figures of fear that hold them hostage. Hugely uncomfortable yet gripping the viewer is as unable to look away as the other characters are from the physical and psychological attack the psychotic pair mounts on each individual in turn
Most fascinating perhaps is the African-American coupe Arnold and Joan Robinson played by Soylant Green’s Brock Peters and Ruby Dee from a multitude of Spike Lee movies. Coming back from a meeting on racial equality and rights Arnold is enraged by the passive rhetoric he was forced to listen to. Believing his people are at war when he witnesses the anarchic villains attack on the white folks he is amused and entertained even siding with them at first. Things take a turn however when Joe targets the pair and unleashes his racist opinions all over them.
Shot in Black and White director Larry Peerce avoids what could have been a very stale and theatrical film by throwing in some stylised shots including several POV moments that place us at the mercy of the malicious maniacs. Interestingly Peerce was denied permission to shoot in the NYC subways, but did it anyway using concealed cameras for some footage increasing the realism and providing a wonderful snapshot of the Big Apple’s rotten core.
The ensemble cast including Thelma Ritter (Rear Window), Donna Mills (Play Misty for Me) and Beau Bridges (The Fabulous Baker Boys) are amazing each crafting their character perfectly, ready to be painfully pulled apart for the deranged entertainment of the adolescents keeping them captive.
Riveting, disturbing and very real this home invasion style hostage drama is a slice of social history yet still as relevant now as it was back then in laying bare human nature and what it take to spin our moral compass completely out of control in exchange for self-preservation.