Tiger Bay (1959)

Horst Bucholtz has always held a soft spot in my heart. There are several very simple reasons. My father’s favorite movie might be The Magnificent Seven, and I grew up watching this young raffish upstart join forces with Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen against the forces that be. Then, years later, there he was again as an old man in La Vita è Bella. Somehow it served the movie and my own history with him well, to see him this way. A mere 5 years later he would be gone.

Of course, Tiger Bay, if you’ve never been acquainted with it before, is the picture that really put him on the map, at least for English-speaking audiences. And it’s easy to see why. He was advertised once upon a time as Germany’s James Dean, and if the comparison makes a modicum of sense at all it has to do with how masculinity can be at one time violent and then sensitive. There would be no other way for him to hold the movie together with Hayley Mills so well. More on that in a moment.

I must take a moment to acknowledge my growing esteem for J. Lee Thompson in recent days because although I am a fan of Cape Fear and not so big an admirer of The Guns of Navarone, it was earlier in his career where he showed his capability with material like Yield to the Night and here in Tiger Bay. The world is easy to place, especially in England with a working-class port town acting as a window to the world. One of the men fresh off one of these ships is the youthful sailor Bronislav Korchinsky, who looks to be reunited with his lover.

Hayley Mills makes her screen debut moments later as a feisty tomboyish pipsqueak ready to roughhouse with all the other street rats. She gleams with a delightful impudence, those large searching eyes of her projecting curiosity and at times rebellion. Her aunt is always scolding her and she always scampers around bumping into neighbors on the stairs or eavesdropping on conversations she has no business in.

One of them is between Korchinsky and his girlfriend Anya. But the scene before us is hardly bliss. It comes seething with angst and vindictive daggers you feel like would hardly have been in vogue across the pond at the same time — at least in mainstream Hollywood. As the woman scoffs at the money he sent home and lets him have it in their native tongue, it becomes apparent this kind of gritty vitriol might only seep into an American noir picture.

In fact, if there is any immediate reference point, it’s possible to find Tiger Bay reminiscent of The Window. However, in this case, Gillie Evans (Mills) is not so much a “kid who’s cried wolf” as a serial annoyance no rational-minded adult looks to take seriously. Still, she’s an eyewitness to what looks to be a shooting. A woman’s dead and the man is on the lam. What’s more, in the moment of initial tumult they crossed paths as he streaked away, and she nicked the evidence to bring back to her aunt’s apartment. For her, this entire scene feels like a novel curiosity, but she thinks little of the consequences in the moment.

Instead, she dodges the inspector’s gentle interrogations (John Mills) before rushing off to drop into church service late, taking up her spot in the choir while still packing the purloined pistol.

It’s fitting that in one moment they seem to be singing a hymn out of Psalm 23 and suddenly the spiritual journey through the valley of the shadow of death becomes all too real. There stands a familiar face in the crowded pews and suddenly her self-assured nonchalance drops off in the middle of her solo. There’s the man!

It feels like a showdown set up for Hitchcockian dread as the church clears out and she’s left to fend for her own against the crazed young man. This can only end poorly. And yet Tiger Bay works because the villain in this equation is not a horrible human being. There are moments he could press his advantage, whether it’s pushing her to her death or doing away with her with the gun, but this is not his character.

In fact, in its best and brightest moments, Buckholtz and young Mills become the welcomed nucleus of the movie, at first as wary adversaries and then companions and finally friends capable of playacting in the morning light. For a few moments, they are able to shed all the worries of the world and enjoy being in one another’s company.

In the latter half, it takes on a different tilt altogether as a little girl, now beholden to her new friend, looks to buy him time as he looks to sneak off on a ship out to sea. We have ticking clocks and stakes, all those storytelling tricks of the trade, but the core of the entire story is the relational capital that we build. It becomes a new, far more compelling kind of movie. Because now a child must live in the ambiguity of the moment and how are they to decipher the difference between right and wrong and what those terms even mean?

The ending feels a bit prolonged and drawn out for its own good though it’s kept afloat by this underlying relational tension. A man’s life hangs in the balance as Mills drags his real-life daughter out to sea to identify the purported killer before he can get away for good.

John Mills feels generally flat and uninteresting if a mostly benevolent authority representing a prevailing moralism. Otherwise, this picture has much to offer and a colorful perspective on the world circa 1959.

Suddenly, British society, cinematography notwithstanding, doesn’t look quite so monochrome. Because of course, it wasn’t. It’s a world of Polish immigrants, vibrant Calypso music on the street corners, and foreign sailors who are not totally subservient to the British powers. It’s a reminder that ports really can be windows to the world even as they can also bring disparate people together.

3.5/5 Stars

The Bowery (1933) and Jumping Off Brooklyn Bridge

There is an immediate sense The Bowery was meant to capitalize on Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper’s success in The Champ from the year prior, as well as the rising stock of George Raft after Scarface. In short, the creative paring works quite well because although Beery was the highest-paid talent at MGM, Raft proves himself to be a chipper and able sparring partner for his formidable colleague. 

The world being projected and explored is the relatively distant past of the Gay Nineties, and yet still recent enough to remain as a living memory for some contemporary audiences. The movie is capped off by a prologue touting the Bowery as “The Livest mile of the face of the globe,” and here we have our entry point into the turn-of-the-century milieu. 

Before The Rifleman, there was another Chuck Connors (Beery), who is a larger-than-life figure on the bowery with his bowler hat and brawny shoulders. He runs the local saloon, an expectantly raucous and bawdy place, it also carries with it a rather off-putting name. Strike one.

Of course, none of these folks care and why should they? They’re too busy knocking back a pint and ogling the floor show. And Connors is right in the middle of the daily bedlam. One of Beery’s favorite drinks is “boy-bin” in the local parlance. He’s also not above clubbing a woman who gets too touchy-feely with him. 

However, for all his boisterous show of bravado, he does have a soft spot. One of the most important people in his life is Swipes (Cooper) a young vagabond he adopted off the streets whose hobbies include throwing rocks at the Chinks. Strike two. Does it need to be said that, although these elements are period, they definitely don’t play now? Well, there you are. 

Despite, these immediate if realistic racial insensitivities, there is some instantly immersive world-building director Raoul Walsh synthesizes through a host of vignettes on the streets. It might only be a figment of my own mind, but there’s a reason Bowery sounds like Bowels because we’ve found ourselves in one of the lowliest, basest melting pots of the world.  

But there would be no movie without our two stars. If Beery opens the film and establishes himself, then George Raft comes right on his heels making an entrance of his own as Steve Brodie (Don’t ever say I don’t give you nothin’!). What they provide the movie is the simultaneous presence of two colossal movers and shakers in the local community. 

Beyond being snappy dressers, they are men of many hobbies and even bigger boasts. They’re both pugilistic promoters in the ring, and they run rival fire brigades on the side, which consequently are more like street gangs than civil servant assemblies. It’s all the better to whip up some brassy entertainment. 

The street brawl in the wake of a conflagration is extraordinarily choreographed as pure fist and brick-throwing chaos. While I’m not altogether enamored with the world, the ongoing sense of atmosphere is impressive in such moments of machismo.

What’s more, they become tempered and subsequently more complicated by the introduction of another character. Because the mantle of the movie is built off the trifecta of males, and they remain the focal point. However, then one Lucy Calhoun (Fay Wray) arrives on the scene. She’s a woman from Albany — a virtuous schoolteacher — who Chuck rescues from the depths of destitution. She’s eternally grateful and offers to clean house for him. The most telling outcome is the big man’s chivalry. 

It is a bit of a clash of cultures — she is not of this world — and it’s in part because of her vulnerability; he protects her from the wolves on the prowl. But if Lucy brings out another side of Chuck, the same might be said of Steve Brodie. He comes off as a brute in their opening encounter, everything we expect him to be, but then he warms and softens. And she does too.

She’s still devoted to Chuck (though Swipes can’t stand her much), but her romance with Steve starts to bloom. They have excursions out to the beach at Coney Island — romantic moments like that. The only question remaining is where will the movie go? 

For those familiar with the real-life Steve Brodie, it must escalate into a bet and a dare to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, which he looks to weasel his way out of. Although, in the end, he’s forced to prove his mettle with the whole town gaping and the authorities on high alert. 

Walsh expertly understands the cadence of the scene with Brodie flying across the bridge in his carriage — the policeman sprinting after him in pursuit. Meanwhile, the director cuts across the panoply of humanity — the faces we know like Wray and Cooper — and the host of onlookers who fill out the world. It’s the strangest kind of social event, and yet how it’s delivered to us builds up the mounting tension of the moment.

Ultimately, Chuck loses at the hands of Brodie (and Carrie Nation!). His bar is flipped in the process. With his pride and joy taken away from him, and his gambling debts weighing him down, he winds up living a life of poverty as Brodie ascends and becomes the new grand man about town. The balance of power — their aggressive stalemate — has finally shifted, and there is a forlornness about it. What made them such formidable rivals before had to do with them both being on equal footing. It looks like one has finally won out. 

Being a proud man, Chuck isn’t quite over his vendetta, and knowing Brodie’s own wellspring of pride, they agree to a river barge face-off, man to man, just like the old days. But the most curious development is this. It’s summed up with only a few words: “Remember the Maine.” Suddenly patriotic fervor is afoot. There is a new enemy. Suddenly, the two sworn enemies make their amends.

Fay Wray is a mediator, and they agree to have themselves a lark in Cuba because with two palookas like them, the war’s bound to be over in a fortnight. So the Bowery’s greatest source of conflict simultaneously becomes its new hub of comedy and comradery as the rivalry evolves, and we get to see it turn. It’s yet another entry in the Walsh canon fully in tune with its own idea of fun. There’s never a sense this picture takes itself too seriously. 

I am not sure if the director had a certain preoccupation with the Gay Nineties from his youth or what have you — his filmography is very robust and equally diverse — but the Bowery certainly would pair nicely with the likes of Strawberry Blonde and Gentleman Jim in how they so readily evoke the era. Nothing speaks to that more than John L. Sullivan and a bit of temperance imposed by Carrie Nation.

4/5 Stars

Blonde Crazy (1931) with Joan Blondell and James Cagney

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From the outset, Blonde Crazy promises to be a midwestern hotel chamber piece. It’s a story of the help: including opportunistic bellboys (James Cagney) and plucky chambermaids (Joan Blondell). He does her a service by nabbing her a job, and in such a world, he probably expects some recompense.

James Cagney is still kicking around and feeling out his persona; Joan Blondell’s on the way up with him. It’s mind-boggling that in the year 1931 alone both of them put in time in over half a dozen pictures each for Warner Bros. They were both building up a body of work quite quickly.

In a movie like this, the people I’m often preoccupied with are the Charles Lanes and Guy Kibbees — the host of able character actors who always show up in a movie like this. Blonde Crazy has quite the assortment. It’s stuffed with the kind of familiar faces, making a small trifle like this worthwhile, playing desk clerks and delinquent jewels salesmen, among other things. You know the types.

If the story remained in the hotel, it would be severely handcuffed because its stars are meant to be out in the world! Thankfully, the movie breaks out of the constraining formula and finds itself allowing Cagney to shine because there was no one who could do charisma like him. However, Blondell’s never one to be discounted, keeping with him tit for tat.

She exhibits plucky defiance ranking up there with any of the top female performers of the 1930s, coping with the social systems while still holding her own in a man’s world teeming with come-ons and everyday misogyny.

Does it matter what it has in the way of plot? Hardly. Instead, Bert (Cagney) and Anne (Blondell) leave the hotel, becoming business associates or better yet, accomplices drumming up clever (and slightly dubious ways) to make a quick buck.

Blondell is never taken in. She sees right through Burt and still stays with him. He has flashes of decency but driven as he is by money and other superficial qualities, he’s a tough guy to try and wrangle in. Still, their prevailing attribute is their loyalty to one another. Cagney likens himself to a modern Robin Hood. He does have that kind of rapacious charm (and this is before the world knew Errol Flynn).

In time, they’ve had an upgrade frequenting the lavish hotel circuit as partners, though their romantic status remains a bit hazy. Bert inserts himself into a fistfight on the dance floor. It seems like the perfect point of intersection for Cagney. He comes to the aid of Louis Calhern a man he’s been eyeing for some time namely, because of his scintillating female company (Noel Francis). She’s been giving him the look. Anne knows it too. She wasn’t born yesterday.

Unfortunately, Bert gets punked. He’s been made a sucker. In the movie world, you don’t make a sucker of Jimmy Cagney and get away with it. With his pride hurt by the big boys, he looks to regain his stripes by pulling a double-sided con of his own, just to break even. He doesn’t bother to tell Anne. It’s preliminary work for greater coming attractions. If you want to try and get a line on Cagney’s character, he’s not quite his usual gangster type; he’s a smaller operator, but still stretching the boundaries of the law. In his own words, he’s “not tough just mercenary.”

For all the names crammed in the picture, I almost forgot to mention Ray Milland. I hardly knew he was in pictures this early in time, and he looks like a babyface, albeit a handsome one. He’s relegated to the secondary role. He’s Anne’s dreamboat. The complete antithesis of Cagney. He has class. So they get married. But he’s fallen into a bit of misfortune. The only man who can probably pull him out is good ol’ Bert.

All these bits and pieces feel conventional. There’s the immediate romantic tension and the story zips along. Milland is nothing aside from the other man. But if you miss out on Cagney and Blondell’s rapport, then you’ve failed to appreciate the merit of the picture. They make it shine.

While it’s not cutting-edge entertainment, Blonde Crazy does simultaneously straddle the lines of genre. It’s not totally gangster — there’s romance and melodramatic flourishes — and there’s a lightness of comedy. This is what lingers.

Because, in the end, Bert’s sent up for a prison sentence and Anne dutifully shows up professing her undying love. They were meant to be together. What I will remember is how Cagney says “Hone-eee,” and how Cagney, donning his most elocutionary voice, spouts off a bit of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. And it’s a violent picture: full of socks, slaps, and spanks, all in a comical vein and totally indiscriminate. Everyone gets in on it. It helps in illustrating the underlying fact that this is not just Cagney’s movie. Blondell more than holds her own, and they make it better together. What’s more, this was just the beginning.

3.5/5 Stars

The Wrong Man (1956): Henry Fonda The Most Sympathetic of Victims

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I never grew up watching reruns of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but there’s kind of a ubiquitous aura about them. The man himself — the entirety of his portly physique — comes out of the shadows into a family’s living room to narrate some ghastly or unseemly crime with a droll sense of humor. The show ran from 1955 to 1965 becoming a wildly popular cultural touchstone, and it’s easy to see how The Wrong Man (1956) might have fit into this lineage.

Hitchcock was normally a walking cameo, providing a wink-wink to the audience as he pulled the strings from behind the camera. Here he is also a spokesperson assuring his audience every word of the following story is true though it plays stranger than fiction.

What becomes immediately apparent is the New York milieu. It’s unadorned and if it’s themes and star bring to mind Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men with Henry Fonda, then the world itself has the kind of simple humanity of Paddy Chayefsky. And this is a Hitchcock movie, mind you, but the cinematography by Robert Burks is gorgeous in its stark black & white tones. It helps to maintain this suggested sense of concrete realism.

We open on the bustling Stork Club — it’s a real place — and there “Manny” Balestero (Fonda) plays bass as part of the house band. He’s not rich by any means, but he makes an honest wage going home to his wife (Vera Miles) after the dancing is done. Their life together is humble but full of love and decency. They raise two rambunctious boys, and he promises to give them music lessons.

His life is preoccupied with the kind of familial responsibilities we all understand. His wife has some dental work that needs to be done — it’s expensive so he needs to check on their insurance policy — and he plans to check in on his mother. It’s rather unextraordinary. But this is what makes it unusual.

While Manny only looks to check on his wife’s insurance policy, Hitchcock frames it like a bank robbery. Except the gun coming out of his pocket is the paper policy. The teller walks away, her face racked with concern as she consorts with her superior. A holdup hasn’t been committed, and yet it sure feels like it. In a stunning shot, the superior peers past her shoulder and catches sight of Manny perfectly oblivious. It’s the beginning of trouble.

Soon Manny is I.D.’d. He’s not trying to hide anything. Some policemen (including Harold J. Stone) show up on his doorstep to take him in for questioning. They assuage any concerns he might have: “It’s nothing for an innocent man to worry about. It’s the fella who’s done something wrong who has something to worry about.” And so he goes along with their line of interrogation because he naively believes in the veracity of justice.

What becomes more apparent is the fallibility of eyewitness testimony and the coincidence found in circumstantial evidence. I am reminded of the work done by the likes of Elizabeth Loftus and of confirmation bias. Of how misleading information often molds responses. Two ladies pick Manny out of a lineup which doesn’t bode well. Then, whether or not it’s uncanny, his handwriting also looks close enough to an incriminating stick-up note.

However, more so than any of the implications on law and the criminal justice system, The Wrong Man is such a powerful exemplification of Hitchock’s directorial talents. It’s devilishly simple on the exterior, and yet he does so much to make us totally cognizant of Fonda’s condition. It goes beyond mere osmosis. Thanks to Hitchock, we live Fonda’s point of view.

When he’s first approached, then, again, when he finds himself actually booked and imprisoned, Hitchcock does something deceptively simple — taking on Fonda’s eyes. He looks around the confines of the space — to the sink in the corner, up at the ceiling, and we are there with him. We forget about a camera — that there is visual trickery going on — and we fall into Manny’s predicament sitting right there by his side.

We recognize the shame of being imprisoned — to be robbed of your dignity even if you manage to be exonerated. He’s taken through all the paces of justice in all its drab mundanity. It takes all the sheen out of law and order; this isn’t Elliot Ness or Perry Mason. This is common, everyday people grinding through their daily lives.

Manny watches as they do their jobs around him with a kind of detached efficiency. He has no idea what he’s caught up in nor does he think about trying to speak up on his behalf. The machine is moving too fast, and he’s already reticent. Could it be it’s hopeless? Instead, as he’s handcuffed, he watches the footfalls of his fellow prisoners being led to the van. What’s he supposed to do? Worst of all, he isn’t able to notify his wife, and he always calls her if he’s out late. He’s that kind of man.

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The resulting storyline involves a valiant lawyer (Anthony Quayle), who agrees to take his case. However, every possible alibi proves a dead-end. Manny’s wife, once the image of so much jovial warmth, has become delusional in the lead up to his trial. She can’t take the strain.

Finally, we are in the throes of the court proceedings. Manny holds his rosary under his desk and later the cross hangs suspended up above him. It’s hard to take it any other way but that of a symbol: here is a man being falsely accused crucified for something he did not do. Like I Confess, this is not only a tale of a man put on trial unjustly, it’s the tribulations of a devout man of faith.

True to form, The Wrong Man also reflects the most perceptive and honest of courtrooms. As Manny sits there, his fate in the balance, he glances around to see all the various side conversations going on — for other people the proceedings only hold mild curiosity — but again, Hitchcock has made us totally empathize with Manny.

After his mother implores him to pray to God, he prepares for work as per usual, but then takes a moment to heed her advice. Looking at the picture of Jesus on the wall, he begins to whisper his prayers under his breath. The visuals start to superimpose. There is Manny — that is Henry Fonda’s face — and the mug of the wanted man comes into view and meets him in the middle of the screen. All of sudden, he’s got a bit of luck. It’s the fortuitous key to the whole horrid mess. Christians would believe this is Providence.

The ending hardly matters nor does the fact that it is a “true story.” It’s the impression the movie leaves on us casting the greatest shadow. Hank Fonda is the most sympathetic of victims. However, it’s Alfred Hitchcock who intuitively understands how to augment his plight by making it viscerally resonate frame after frame. Without the bells and whistles he grew accustomed to, he shows he’s still capable of making a superior film.

4/5 Stars

I Confess (1953): What Would Hitch Do?

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Religion doesn’t always play a prominent role in the films of Alfred Hitchock — he could possibly be considered a lapsed Catholic — but I Confess is his most overt exploration of moral and religious convictions. Although one could make the argument that he’s most interested in the mechanisms created by the moral conundrum since his priest becomes another innocent man accused. Nonetheless, the story speaks for itself.

It opens in quintessential Hitchock fashion as signage seems to indicate a route and then moments later a murder is announced with a body sprawled out on the floor. A man walks down the street briskly in the cosset of a priest. If nothing else, it suggests a man of the cloth might soon be implicated.

Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift), who will soon become of primary importance, is in the church when he is met by Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse), who works in the local parish with his wife. The Father has always been good to him, his friend even, and now he has a confession.

The confessional becomes such a powerful dramatic element: It’s been used to stirring effect in everything from Leon Morin, Priest to the more recent Calvary. In I Confess it conveniently sets up Hitchcock’s core dilemma. The flustered European immigrant confesses to the murder of a man named Vilette. Priests, of course, take a vow of confidentiality. Thus, the picture is not entirely a mystery. This is laid in the audience’s lap before we know what exactly to do with it.

Everything must become far more complicated. It involves the Father’s past relationship with the now married Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter). That was many years ago, although Logan remains above reproach.

Still, the police inspector (Karl Malden) needles him and cannot understand why he will not be more compliant. After all, he was supposed to meet Vilette the morning after his death, and he was seen with the young woman on the street corner, the day after. It’s true enough, but he will not divulge more regardless of how it looks.

Flashbacks clog up the story’s midriff even as it becomes imperative to inform the narrative. Because before he ever took his vows, they were in love. He went off to war and she was left despondent, receiving small comfort from her employer and future husband: Pierre.

Not all the performances feel altogether pristine or polished but as with the environment, this is a bit of added authentic charm. The more readily-remembered Hollywood actors feel mostly like dressing compared to Father Logan — Malden’s obdurateness might be the exception. Still, this is not altogether problematic and while the picture’s not exactly taut, it does feel psychologically distressing. Clift is made to suffer in silence.

We often forget, with the lustrous Technicolor glories of the Paramount years and pictures from Rear Window to Marnie, that Hitchock was comfortable with smaller scale and black & white. Quebec is a very unique locale, but it effectively serves his plot and the evocation of provincial character quite well.

Although Hitchcock was never one to see eye to eye with so-called “Method actors,” I think of Clift and Paul Newman in particular, there’s no argument that he allows Monty to shine even sets him up for a nuanced but ultimately towering performance. There’s a quiet magnitude imbued by his stoicism in front of the camera.

He literally becomes a Christ figure and it’s no mere coincidence that Hitchcock shoots looking down past a sculpture of a man carrying the cross as Logan himself walks below on the street. Or for that matter, how often do you see a crucifix so prominently featured in a courtroom? It’s because this courtroom drama has a priest on the stand. The whole movie is playing out through what he will and will not do. His convictions dictate what will happen.

It’s the district attorney (Brian Aherne) who has the undesirable job of getting a conviction by doing his job to the best of his abilities. This means cross-examining a mutual friend (Baxter) as well as the man of the cloth. Is he in a sense, Pontius Pilate? Because even if Father Logan comes out of the trial alive, the media attention and the aspersions on his character can never be undone. He will be faced with public ignominy.

He’s also made to walk the gauntlet so many times; Hitchock blesses Clift with some phenomenal close-ups and allows the camera to take on his protagonist’s point of view multiple times. He’s not the only one, but one can hardly forget the very final scene in the Chateau Frontenac Hotel: The Father goes in to confront the man who was going to let him take the rap for a murder he did not commit.

The man has a gun. He’s holding himself up and by now he’s desperate already, having killed at least one other person. The room couldn’t seem larger and still, with a kind of peerless conviction, Clift’s hero makes the long walk prepared to sacrifice himself yet again.

Ultimately, he is vindicated; there is a sense of justice, but what a terrifying portrait it is. For those without major religious convictions, it might feel absurd. I must admit it seems almost inconceivable a priest cannot alert the police about a murderer. Surely, even the Bible talks about there being a season for everything, and a time for every purpose under Heaven. Still, Hitchcock even made a point in an interview:

“We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional, but the Protestants, the atheists, and the agnostics all say, ‘Ridiculous! No man would remain silent and sacrifice his life for such a thing.”

It should be noted, in a Hitchcock film, it usually seems like a time to kill and a time for hate because what better way to explore our moral makeup and the forums of human justice? In the end, Father Logan holds fast and is exculpated. If not only by earthly powers, then higher powers too. I’m still left to wonder what Hitchcock would have said in the confessional if he was faced with it.

You can tell a lot about a man from his fears as well as his vices. What stands out about the picture is how it never feels undermined by jokes. It feels as sincere as the man at its core. For some, it might be a turnoff. For others, it will make you appreciate the director even more. He willingly enters into the realm of the pious, albeit through the lens of murder.

3.5/5 Stars

Family Plot (1976): Hitch’s Swan Song

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You rarely hear mention of Alfred Hitchcock’s last cinematic foray, Family Plot, and you would assume that means a throwaway title — a fall from his illustrious heights. Not so! In fact, it’s rather a shame more folks haven’t turned the movie on because it proves the Master still has it. There’s still a twinkle in his directorial eye as he leads us on one final merry jaunt of murder, crime, and passion.

I was always under the illusion family plot was about some kind of conspiracy. The first inkling is from a cemetery plot even as it evolves into a broader conspiracy unraveling in front of us. It never registered as a pun until the story began to run its course. Allow me to explain.

Our story opens with a quack psychic (Barabara Harris) drumming up business with rich old spinsters ready to fork out money to get their fortunes told. She’s running the ongoing con with her boyfriend George Lumley (Bruce Dern). They’re purely small-time operators.

Soon he is on the beat poking around about a man named Shoebridge. What he’s doing at first isn’t exactly clear — he’s a taxi cabbie by day — however, soon we realize he’s digging up tidbits for future seance fodder.

Their latest coup involves a wealthy widow, if only they can locate her long-lost nephew who was given up for adoption years before. She looks to bequeath him some of her vast fortunes on behalf of her guilt-ridden dear departed sister. They too have a stake in finding him: $10,000 to be exact, which is a fortune to them.

Meanwhile, the headlines are taken with a crime of a different sort: The Constantine Ransom for a priceless gem. It really is the perfect crime. The police are befuddled and there hasn’t been a single false step. Their hands are tied as a mysterious lady in black — a twist on the Hitchcock blonde — shows up to make the trade. She leaves with her gem and orders a helicopter to aid in her getaway, all planned so she can drift back into anonymity.

It turns out she also has an accomplice: her lover, who works as a local jeweler (William Devane). By sheer coincidence, he is the very same man Dern is hunting for. Instantly we have the glorious joke at the center of the drama.

Because these circumstances have nothing to do with his dubious extracurricular activities and still, this uncanny connection becomes a lovely fulcrum for the movie to balance on with comic underpinnings. In one defining moment, the stolen diamond is kept in a very visible hiding spot established by a telling Hitchcock closeup. He looks to be having a gleeful good time of it.

Ernest Lehman’s script (remember he collaborated with Hitch on North by Northwest) is more liberal with the profanities, but it readily amuses itself with the quandary at its core exploring the relationships of these two couples and how these separate scenarios are tied together. In some strange way, it’s all things police procedural, murder mystery, and a bit like a vintage drawing-room comedy. They’re both after two very different pots!

The ransomers’ latest plans involve the brazen kidnapping of a local bishop taking full advantage of the congregation’s shock. Diagnosing the situation later, as they tear off their disguises and zoom away he notes smugly, “they’re all too religiously polite.”

Lumley’s travails take him to a religious setting of his own, in his case, the funeral of a balding gas station attendant named Maloney (Ed Lautner). There’s no need to get into his death although it involved some winding roads and a car chase of sorts…

In the most captivating shot, Hitchcock captures the overgrown cemetery from a birdseye perspective. Maloney’s reticent wife (Katherine Helmond) scurries away and Dern scampers along until he corners her. It’s the same old story. She wants to be left alone, and he just wants information.

The search for A.A. Adamson leads to all sorts of people and visual gags placed in front of us with a wry wink. But this is hardly the grandest joke as Hitchcock allows us to watch the stories converge as we are caught right in the middle. Again, it’s wonderful bits of coincidence getting in the way or more precisely bringing the story to an impeccable climax.

I’ve been mulling over the assertion that the great directors have a distinct point of view. With Hitch, he used the shot-reverse-shot paradigm certainly, but there was always a cadence to it. If he needed to break out of the rhythm he would.

My mind flashes to a scene with Dern as he’s hiding on the stairwell. The couple has returned from their latest crime totally unaware of their guest. Their feet wander around the kitchen as they talk. We’re paying partial attention to that but like Dern, Hitch makes us crane our necks and feel uncomfortable as the audience. In that individual moment, we don’t have the whole picture, and we are forced to be in his shoes for even an instant. There’s definitely a profound level of audience identification and inherent tension. This is all Hithcock’s doing.

The ending is more than satisfactory, but Barbara Harris’s wink to the camera is like a final curtain call for Hitch. This last gesture sums up his career for me. It was built on suspense and an intuitive understanding of visual cinema and audience manipulation. However, his very own persona and the connection he created with the masses wouldn’t be anything without his sense of humor.

Due to his deteriorating health, he would never complete another film, dying 4 years later in 1980. He was planning on a film called The Short Night, a project that obviously was never realized. With his death, the film world lost one of its most consummate craftsmen and storytellers.

In a Hitchcock movie, you feel well taken care of because the director knows what he’s doing, oftentimes even when we don’t. He scares us when we want to be scared. Thrills us. Gives us romance. And even deigns to allow us to be in on the joke.

Under the circumstances, I can’t think of a more appreciative place to leave the Master. His powers haven’t atrophied. On the contrary, he still knows how to play the game and how to have fun doing it. This might be the most pleasant surprise of Family Plot. Alfred Hitchcock never lost his wonderfully grim sense of humor.

3.5/5 Stars

Frenzy (1972): Cleaning Up The Streets

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There we are gliding across the River Thames making our way toward the regal facade of Tower Bridge. Where’s one apt to find a more picturesque view of London? It’s definitely an auspicious return to his native land for the Master of Suspense.

Frenzy is without question a singular Hitchcock movie taking him back to his roots in the ’20s and ’30s — not just the days of Stage Fright (1950) or The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) — something like The Lodger (1927) or Sabotage (1936) springs to mind.

Of course, it’s a different England. It’s gotten bitten by the bug. Certainly one of them was Swinging London and The Beatles, but even as the old world, the small-town world continues to pass away, there’s a sense this same progression is being documented in Frenzy.

The characters knock around town at all the pubs, street corner grocers, and everywhere else in Convent Gardens — what’s left is a remnant of Hitchcock’s boyhood world. The director’s father was a grocer, and thus, it’s a return to his roots in the most Hitcockian way possible: replete with murder.

A charismatic civil servant stands atop his soapbox with a rapt audience rallying the people they’ll soon clear the rivers and canals of society’s refuse — pollution will be banished — and right on cue, there’s an interruption from the masses. He gets preempted when an onlooker realizes something bobbing in the river: A woman’s body with a tie twisted around her neck.

Irony notwithstanding, it causes a surge through the crowds as gossip about the rash of necktie murders throughout town. In this way, the traditions of Jack the Ripper have been modernized and remain alive and well in contemporary London.

It’s not only these onlookers but acquaintances in pubs and any other random passerby who all have a callous, morbid curiosity about them — their conversations are overwhelmingly about the killer — and they come off darkly cynical.

The men from New Scotland Yard for their part are on the lookout for a sexual psychopath and a social misfit who might be easily categorized. Because what better way than to put criminals in a box to understand them?

Right about now we must introduce our protagonist, who also becomes the obvious target of all this foreshadowing. We are led to believe Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) an acerbic ex-RAF man who is the obvious culprit, although, for the time being, he’s unsuspected.

Still, after his ex-wife, who runs a new-fangled matrimonial agency is brutally murdered, unbeknownst to him, the forces of the plot are already out of his control. It’s as if the film is cruelly conspiring to ensnare him like all the most crippling of Hitchock’s man-on-the-run thrillers.

The police are looking for a fugitive with a tweed jacket with patches on the shoulders and elbows. It’s true all pieces of circumstantial evidence, motive, and eyewitness accounts point to Blaney. At every turn, he looks to be guilty and he does very little to help his case. A hotel bellman tips off the law, and then the testy bar owner (Bernard Cribbins) he used to work under accuses him further.

He does have several allies in the generally morose landscape. One is the local barmaid Babs (Barbara Massey), who stands by him in his innocence. Another is Johnny Porter, a buddy who gives Richard asylum, despite the chastisement of his suspicious wife.

Although Johnny feels like a far too convenient character — he implicates himself in a potential crime quite readily — but let’s not allow this to detract from the story. Dick does have one other friend: a local grocery worker named Bob Rusk (Barry Foster), who gives him free handouts and tips at the races, among other things.

Frenzy is the most visually grisly and unnerving Hitchcock picture with a kind of in-your-face depiction of the murders. In this regard, it seems uncharacteristic of the man who often seemed the king of simulated gore and suggested horror.

The Shower Scene in Psycho is the unadulterated pinnacle of this. Where the intensity comes in the layering and total manipulation of all the formalistic elements. Frenzy is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum showing everything far more explicitly. It almost seems to lack the elegance of a Hitchcock picture — Blaney and Bob are earthier types than we’re used to.

Still, in one of Frenzy’s most telling shots, Hitch literally pulls the camera down the stairs out into the street just as we recognize that the dastardly deed is being done. It’s a second murder, and he makes us painfully aware of it without ever putting us inside the room. The same cannot be said in the other instances.

However, what truly sets the picture apart is how Hitchcock scrapes the dividing line between psychotic killer and despicable human being so close that nobody wins. Because Dick’s yet another man on the run framed by fate. The only difference is he’s a wholesale cad. Whether he’s innocent or not is immaterial here. He might be The Wrong Man, but he’s no Henry Fonda and he’s certainly not Cary Grant.

The movie wraps up briskly and abruptly. There’s hardly time to catch our breath though Hitch does put us out of our misery. Our “hero” is exonerated, and the police apprehend the criminal, all in a matter of seconds. All this might be true, but it doesn’t make the world any more livable. There’s still refuse in the waterways and rubbish in the streets. Not only is the nostalgic world Hithcock knew disappearing — this is sad in itself — it does feel like the world itself is a tawdry, cynical place.

To be fair, this might not be the director’s perspective — he holds a far more perverse sense of humor than mine — but when I look at this world it’s far from comforting. I’m a bit of an anglophile so there’s an appreciation in seeing familiar faces like Clive Swift (Keeping up Appearances) or Bernard Cribbins (Doctor Who), but maybe I’ve been watching the wrong things.

Then again, Hitchcock always did suggest the dark desires and inclinations of society conveyed through this lens of macabre amusement. Now his depictions are simply sharper and more direct.

In other words, the legacies of Jack the Ripper or Jekyll & Hyde aren’t dead. Over time, we just got better at trying to dissect them, and we’ve become increasingly more numb to their depravity. Could it be presumed innocence no longer matters? We’re all on the run. We all go a little mad sometimes. We’re all guilty of something.

3.5/5 Stars

Uptight! (1968): Jules Dassin and Ruby Dee

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4th, 1968. Uptight was released in December of the same year. It’s a rather unnerving circumstance because the movie was conceived well before the horrid tragedy, and yet this cataclysmic moment haunts the picture. If the struggle for unity was a tough proposition before, how do you begin to make sense of the moment afterward? Now a story that didn’t necessarily need this specificity was inextricably linked to very real events. The film in its updated form literally begins with the wake of MLK.

Only recently did I recognize two separate films that recontextualized Irish struggles during The Troubles with the black experience in the 1960s. John Ford’s The Informer became Uptight with Ruby Dee and Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out turned in The Lost Man with Sidney Poitier.

Although I don’t know enough about the nuance and minutiae of these respective histories, I am fascinated to learn if this was merely a coincidence, a marketing strategy someone actually employed, or a small cog in a broader genre conversation.

Jules Dassin and Ruby Dee are easy to tap as the primary architects, one a causality of The Hollywood Blacklist that forced him into European exile, and then Dee, along with her husband Ossie Davis, were two of the foremost black performers and social activists of their generation.

Given this context, it’s not surprising, the film hardly made a blip on the broader cultural landscape. In an era of COINTELPRO, this movie seems more timely than many people realize and a testament to that might just be that very few people recognize the movie. This is not the type of film that would get championed because even today it bristles against some prevailing sensibilities and causes us to reconsider the trajectory of our nation’s legacy.

The FBI purportedly had informants in the crew who helped them keep tabs on the production. The crew, including its director, was predominantly white while the movie was financed by one of the big studios: Paramount Pictures. This is the context of a picture that floundered at the box office.

The film itself is set in Cleveland, Ohio where tensions are high. The nonviolent philosophy of MLK has been brutalized, and the rest of the black community seethes with rage, understandably so. It sets the groundwork for fiercer insurrection. The emerging leadership believes it’s time for a new vision to take its place.

Growing sentiments of disillusionment are made clear early on: “The man from love got his head shot off, and all those people learned nothing.” And they derisively criticize what’s come before:  “Cry, march, pray, that’s the way to win Whitie’s heart.”

Crucial to the film’s core dilemma is the character of Tank (Julian Mayfield). The movie resculpts Victor McLaglen’s carousing tragic turncoat into an even more pitiful figure if it’s possible. Because McLaglen is at least physically imposing albeit neutralized by drink and his own weak-willed failings. Tank here feels like an even sorrier figure. James Earl Jones, who could have been slated for the role, is a muscular, stronger stage presence. Somehow it wouldn’t work in the same manner as Mayfield.

He’s a wretched cast-off grappling for some sense of belonging and searching for people around him who will trust in him and let him be an integral part of their lives even as he backslides. One is Johnny (Max Julien), a member of the local militant movement, but also a lifelong confidante. It seems like the tides of the times are moving and they will leave stragglers like Tank behind unless they get with it.

Ruby Dee plays the other crucial part as Laurie a single mother who carves out an existence for herself as a prostitute. I’m not sure if they’re immediately plausible as a romantic pair, although there’s a kindred spirit between them that feels real with affection as well as reproachfulness. Dee’s imbued with both playing a woman trying to eke by as the world continues to writhe around her.

Because there’s a heartlessness in the face of the impending revolution. Roscoe Lee Brown feels simultaneously crass and charismatic as a man who has gotten fat off a career as a police informant. Black men on street corners stand on their soapboxes preaching black power to the restless masses. Women preach an unswerving Christian rhetoric from their posts. The movement itself is represented by the quiet authoritarianism of a cool cat simply known as B.G. (Raymond St. Jacques).

A deserted bowling alley becomes a forum to air grievances and discuss courses of action within the differing factions: those who believe that Selma, Birmingham, and lunch counters are all old hat. Then, there are others still trying to keep the social doctrines of Dr. King alive maintaining there are legal channels to pursue change for the broader black community.

In this dialogue, one of the most intriguing figures is Teddy (Michael Baseleon). He feels like a James Reeb or James Zwerg type, a white man, and yet a man who earned his stripes in the tussles of Dr. King and Civil Rights. He’s been through the maelstrom. He’s counted the cost and yet to the emerging generation of young black power leaders, his skin betrays him. His ex-communication, even peacefully, from this space, seems to signify a point of no return. None of them know how prescient this will prove to be.

Because under the neon lights of Cleveland’s nightlife, Tank makes his Judas choice — to turn in his best friend — literally trudging through the muddy water of the gutter. He’s been besmirched both inside and out.

The film leans into campier moments from the bar where Tank lives it up and then the local arcade where he has a blast in the shooting gallery before scaring the heebie-jeebies out of some bubbleheaded whites in the funhouse. Blacks and whites alike seem to only exist to string out Tank’s delusions, becoming these grotesque stereotypes as reality (and morality) begin to fragment around him.

The wake for Johnny is one of the most arresting sequences where Dassin again exerts his influence over the material. I’ve rarely seen a sweatier face than Julian Mayfield as he drips all over the scene. The low angles stack towering figures all around that make Tank quake with fear in the presence of everyone. It’s a strangely tranquil space that he fills up with his totally unhinged paranoia as his guilt sets in and closes in around him like a noose.

And then he shares a scene with Ruby Dee running to her for comfort. I can’t quite describe the moment: she’s flailing, gasping for air through the tears, and trying to smack him until she falls over on top of him. She loathes him and loves him and feels sorry for him all at the same time.

As the story is stretched out, I got the sense, even as it remained pretty close to John Ford’s film, that Uptight deserved its own resolutions and universe with a level of nuance fit for its current events. But as we come to understand, this is more poetic and not a stab of purely social realism; it allows us the pliability to accept everything that happens on their own terms.

Whereas John Ford was going into expressionistic territory with inspiration nicked from people like F.W. Murnau, Dassin employs his own kind of stylized language to make sense of a story that he’s an outsider to and also probably still deeply sympathetic towards.

To that end, there’s no churchly absolution to absolve Tank from his sins. He’s literally left in a dirt heap, another sorry life, and another black man left for dead. The upbeat Booker T. and The MGs finale can’t do anything to negate the breadth of this tragedy. Even years later, as a nation, we’re still coming to terms with these events. Because we live in a progressive society encouraging non-violence, and yet in the face of inaction — when nothing seems to change, the call for a more aggressive response is hard to rebuff.

Uptight is not the film I was expecting, but my hope is that more people can see it as a segue into conversations. It tackles the issues of 1968 more overtly than the majority of films of the era. Although it hardly reaped the reward at the time, surely it deserves more consideration now. And if nothing else, it’s another crowning testament of two underrated icons: Ruby Dee and Jules Dassin.

4/5 Stars

The Informer (1935): John Ford and Victor McLaglen

The opening title card sets the stage in strife-torn Dublin in 1922 with a reference to Judas, the man who betrayed Jesus Christ to be killed. The allusive nature of the story becomes apparent only with time, connecting with John Ford’s own deeply religious inclinations as an Irish Catholic.

I won’t say Ford’s able to make a soundstage more atmospheric than the real place because reality would provide a grittier, more authentic ambiance, but here we have the mist, large vacant sets, and crumpled up newspapers that flutter around like tumbleweeds. It’s Dublin as can only be conceived in the dream factories of the studio system. 

Some might forget before John Wayne was one of his primary avatars, Victor McLaglen came to represent Ford’s version of hardy masculinity even earlier, and it’s no different here. Even when he was displaced in later years, he still found time to turn up in the director’s pictures, most notably in The Quiet Man and his cavalry trilogy. Ford never seemed to forget actors who had put in their service with him.

As The Informer set down its roots, it feels a bit like watching Hitchock’s England pictures from the ’30s. You can see the early brushstrokes of the master, but it’s almost as if the technology hasn’t quite caught up with their ambitions and the capabilities of what they’re yearning to do. Sound, color, lighting, and the like would improve in the ’50s and ’60s as would both men’s budgets leading to some of their finest achievements and a plethora of the most lauded pictures Hollywood has ever known.

For now, they work with what they have and manage to spin a decent cinematic yarn all the same. Because necessity is the mother of invention; still, it’s also about how you utilize the time and resources on hand to make something as substantive as possible.

The Informer was made for RKO probably due to the fact no one else was willing to take a chance on it. It’s a meager picture in many regards, and this is easy to forget since it was a stunning success during that year’s award season. But it was a film made for a relative pittance over the course of a couple of weeks plus change.

While one would probably never call it Ford’s most profound achievement, you can tell he’s put his blood into it — his history as a proud Irish-American — and its core dilemma is a powerful bulwark to build a film around and an acting performance.

Gypo Nolan (McLaglen) is a man caught in the middle of civil unrest plaguing the lands since their inception. The British think he’s with the Irish and the Irish think he’s with The British. Mostly he’s out for himself just trying to subsist and earn himself a bit of merriment. Still, he can’t scrounge up a job from either side. It’s far from a desirable place to be.

He does have a few friends: Katie (Margot Grahame) is his lady although because he’s not good for much money, she works as a streetwalker to scrape out a living. Still, she’s devoted to the big lovable oaf. Another is Frankie McPhillips (Wallace Ford), a wanted hoodlum for the IRA resistance and a brother in arms for Gypo. They’ve grown up together and as is the prerequisite for a community like this, their friendship is forged in a life lived in proximity. Gypo loves the man, but he’s also penniless with no prospects.

It’s not exactly 30 pieces of silver, but Gypo makes a rash decision to sell out his friend — this isn’t so much of a spoiler — because this becomes the context for the rest of the movie. He’s tortured by his conscience even as no one suspects him in the wake of the tragedy he instigated against his friend and the man’s grieving family.

His only defense is to swim in self-absorbed debauchery. It gets him out of the moment providing a brief escape from his guilt. He belts a policeman and another lad on a street corner before wrangling fish and chips for a whole host of onlookers in a show of drunken generosity thanks to his newfound wealth.

In another scene, he stumbles in on a hotsy-totsy establishment run by a local matron where all the men and women wear top hats over drinks, conversation, and other things. He bowls them over with his rowdy entrance pushing down pipsqueak and gathering pretty girls up around him. These all feel like a part of his mental smokescreen.

Behind the scenes it’s a much grimmer scenario as the pragmatic Dan Gallager (Preston Foster) sends his cronies out into the streets to track down Frankie’s betrayer. This isn’t a mission of mercy. They live in a kill or be killed economy, and they’re prepared to take the necessary actions to preserve their cause against traitors, even those with deep roots in the community.

The drunken Gypo is pulled into a meeting with another suspect (Donald Meek) as the truth is slowly sussed out. The tribunal standing by has echoes of M, though it’s now been superimposed by this sense of Catholic guilt and justice.

McLaglen makes his way through the entire movie boisterous, gruff, and drunk like any good McLaglen performance except this easily must be the bar by which to judge all others. It’s either a really good job of acting or Ford helped him get into the part with a little trickery and added encouragement from the spirits. At least that’s how the story goes. Either way, it works with the actor dispensing this trail of blustering, sniveling, disoriented guilt, and gravitas making the picture go.

Dudley Nichol’s script doesn’t necessarily employ great prose — it’s not a thing of beauty — but Ford is able to utilize its framework to tell a worthy story. The final images culminate in the ultimate biblical picture.

Gypo stumbles into a church with one final chance to pay recompense for his sins. He gains absolution from the Mother (Una O’Connor), standing before the Crucifix, arms outstretched (May God Have Mercy on His Soul). The sentimentality doesn’t feel like typical Ford — though he could certainly be deceptive about it — and this form of religious iconography is something relatively apparent even in his final picture Six Women.

The Informer’s unparalleled success paved the road for him ahead with many great entries to come. Ford certainly was a master in blending classical storytelling with his personal vision. It shows how personal filmmaking can break through the barriers and resonate with audiences on an impactful level.

4/5 Stars

The Incident (1967): Psychological Torture on a Train

Before there ever is an incident to speak of in Larry Peerce’s film, we open on the lowest scum of the streets, played by Martin Sheen and Tony Musante, shooting pool and kicking up any trouble they can manage. Between catcalling after women and ambushing pedestrians for 8 lousy bucks, they’re still starved for more action.

It’s all a game to them, an adrenaline rush to get their Sunday night fix before the week sets in. What’s most telling are the perspective shots that can best be described as sociopathic POVs. Even momentarily they get us inside their heads, and we realize just how debased they are.

The opening display shows us who we are dealing with and what we are getting ourselves into. Because they all but evaporate from the movie for a time. But in the back of our minds, we know they will not be gone forever. It’s inevitable that they will return to wreak some kind of havoc.

The rest of the movie is an act of building out from here. We meet other supporting players from other cross-sections of society. There’s the husband and wife (Ed MacMahon and Diana Van der Vlis) who stayed out late with their daughter and quibble about hailing a taxi or not.

Another elderly couple (Jack Gilford and Thelma Ritter) bickers about their grown son who seems to have a perfectly situated life with a wife and kids and still seems ungrateful. Then, there the young lovers — the guy’s quite the Romeo (Victor Arnold), and he’s only interested in a girl if she puts out. His tentative girlfriend (Donna Mills) feels pressured but also anxious to win his aggressive affections.

If it’s not evident already, almost all of the characters come in couplets because there is something poetic and practical about it. Everyone has a talking partner, someone to nag and gripe with over the course of the movie. They all have their petty problems and individual relational dynamics.

These are the seeds of conflict, ready to combust under the right circumstances, and they do. One of the more light-hearted pairings includes two soldiers (Beau Bridges and Robert Bannard) who are currently on leave visiting some of their parents. Just wait…

We can see what the screenwriters are working towards already. All these stories are slowly interwoven together, crosscutting between each individual pair as they make their way to their respective train stops. Each group has its bit of business to take up as they file aboard all but oblivious of everyone else.

Although the black and white does wonders in making the film feel older than even its release year of 1967, there’s probably one thread that signifies the cultural moment better than most. Brock Peters and Ruby Dee play opposite one another, not as a groveling black couple but as a husband seething with militant desires and his high-minded social working wife who evidently listened more to Dr. King than Malcolm X. Even here we see the tension stretched out taut between them.

What coalesces almost feels like a psychological experiment put to film. Sure enough, Joe (Musante) and Artie (Sheen) come on the scene cackling and drinking like they have all night — going crazy and swinging their way through the train car like a pair of monkeys. For anyone who’s ridden the subway, you can witness some weird things to be sure, but there’s an immediate knee-jerk reaction to mind your own business.

This movie tests these principles whether it’s Good Samaritan syndrome or the diffusion of responsibility. The crux of our story is triggered when the two malcontents accost a homeless man snoozing on the train, prepared to light his boot on fire. Only one bystander (Gary Merrill) tries to casually get them to stop their antagonism, and it’s the first time where the invisible bubble is broached. When he encroaches on their anarchic freedoms, they look to intimidate him.

What’s made plain throughout the movie is the horrifying indifference as the thugs have free rein to perpetrate infractions and humiliations on the people around them. Sheen now is the big name of the two thugs, but Musante is arguably the most chilling, giving a performance that makes the insides crawl with its cruel manipulation. He literally walks through the camera, lumbering around and ruling the car like a vindictive prison warden where the prisoners are now running things.

Although all these moments of duress feel compartmentalized; no one is let out of their incisive games,  and each group is hustled and harried with all sorts of mind games laced with the threat of menace. Old men, old women, children, pretty girls, soldiers. Each one has a weakness and some pressure point to be prodded.

Oddly enough, this is the black man’s paradise watching white people degrade and torment each other for his personal pleasure. Little does he know, he can’t be an impartial observer forever. He too is thrown headlong into the fiery inferno. He too comes face to face with a mortifying breaking point.

By the end, Sheen and Musante aren’t human anymore, and not just because they are movie characters. They feel like evil demons looking to undermine everyone and bring their victims faced to face with their greatest fears and humiliations as they systematically make their way through the car triggering just about everyone.

There’s no conceivable end to this movie other than Beau Bridges taking on Martin Sheen as they look to beat each other to a pulp. It seems almost prescient because these men would become fairly big names in future generations, but for now, they represent the youth movement and where it could take us in the ’70s.

The aftermath of the picture feels equally indicative of the times. When the police rush on the scene, they are quick to apprehend the one black man and pin him down, only to realize their mistake and amend it in the heat of the moment.

There’s something poignant about the final coda: The drunk remains sprawled out on the floor and each and every bystander steps over him. It’s like one final symbol to show the threshold they’ve bypassed. There’s no turning back and whether they realize it or not, The Incident might embody an event that will haunt them for the rest of their lives. They managed to live another day but at what cost? It’s the kind of trauma causing heroes to come out of the woodwork and others to totally capitulate.

It feels like a film perfectly caught between two decades. It’s grittier and more audacious than I was expecting. But then again, this is a low-budget film and the year is 1967. We’re already getting Virginia Wolf, The Graduate, Cool Hand Luke, and Bonnie and Clyde, the forerunners to a generation of New Hollywood films that would blow the cover off what was permissible in the Hollywood scene. The Incident has some of that, but it also has a wealth of players and a premise that feels planted in a different era.

I recently watched The Silver Thread and it has the same distinction. Although it’s far less graphic, these are films totally suspended in time, hearkening back to the ’50s and still somehow forewarning the films of the future. The Incident, in particular, feels like an antecedent to Mean Streets, Badlands, The French Connection, and even Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3. It’s fascinating to see glimpses of this emerging generation, especially in a film that, while rarely being discussed in a broader context, is still full of genuine heart-stopping drama. 

4/5 Stars