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

Sidney Poitier: For Love of Ivy, Lost Man, Brother John

In honor of the inimitable Sidney Poitier, I spent some time revisiting a bevy of his finest films and also some underrated ones that were new to me. Because he was a prominent archetype for a black movie star, when he was often the only one, it’s fascinating to see the roles he chose at different junctures in his career and how they evolved and played with his well-remembered screen image.

He will be dearly missed, but he left a sterling career behind well worth our consideration. Here are three films you may not have seen before:

For Love of Ivy (1968)

As best as I can describe it, For Love of Ivy, features Poitier and Abbey Lincoln in their version of a Doris Day and Rock Hudson rom-com. It starts out a bit cringy. Lincoln is the maid of the most hopelessly oblivious white family. Mom and Dad are completely blindsided when she says she wants to quit so she can actually have a life with prospects.

Instead of listening to her, the two teen kids ( a hippy Bea Bridges and bodacious Lauri Peters) scheme to set her up with an eligible black man. They know so few, but Tim Austin (Bridges) settles on Jack Parks, a trucking executive because he conveniently has some leverage to get Jack to give Ivy a night on the town. Some awkward matchmaking (and blackmail) ensues to bring our couple together.

Hence how Lincoln and Poitier become an item. But even this dynamic has some unprecedented delights. They eat Japanese food together and visit a club that positively scintillates with ’60s vibes as seen through Hollywood’s eyes. It’s the age-old ploy where the transactional relationship morphs into real love until the truth threatens to ruin the romance. Again, it’s not exactly new hat from Robert Alan Arthur.

Still, with a happy ending and equilibrium restored, Poitier, who helped develop the story, is trusting his audience can read between the lines of all the dorky craziness. For what it is, the movie plays as a great showcase for Poitier and Lincoln. Since there are so very few movies like this with black leads, it feels like a cultural curio. If the mood strikes you, some might even find a great deal more agreeable than Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner because it doesn’t take its own social importance too seriously. It’s mostly wacky fun.

3.5/5 Stars

The Lost Man (1969)

The Lost Man features an edgier more militant Poitier because there’s no doubt the world around him had changed since he first got to Hollywood in the ’50s. He’s cool, hidden behind his shades, and observing the very same world with tacit interest. It’s a world ruled by social unrest as his black brothers and sisters picket and protest the racial injustices around them only to be forcibly removed by the authorities.

Robert Alan Arthur’s film shows a brief focused snapshot of the social anxieties of the age. It becomes more convoluted when Jason and some other members of the organization rob a local bank. Their motives are in some ways philanthropic as they hope to use the funds to get some of their friends out of prison and support their families on the outside. But it’s also an overt act of insurrection in their battle against a broken system.

It also puts lives in jeopardy, culminating in a frantic murder as the police hunt for the perpetrators in the botched aftermath. Jason flinches in a crucial moment and must spend the rest of the movie as a fugitive nursing a bullet wound. These all feel like typical consequences in a crime picture circa 1969.

However, one of the most crucial and fascinating relationships in the movie is between Joanna Shimkus, who is a social worker, and Poitier. We don’t get too much context with them, but it’s an onscreen romance that would predate their marriage in real-life. Their rapport complicates the story because she is a white woman who is so invested in this community like few people are, and she effectively brings out a gentler more intimate side of him.

Although it’s not necessarily pushed on us, their interracial romance puts them both in jeopardy because it’s not the way the world normally operates. The ending somehow gave me brief flashbacks to Odd Man Out, but Poitier’s marriage with Shimkus would last well over 40 years! It’s the best denouement this movie could ever hope to have.

3/5 Stars

Brother John (1971)

Brother John feels like one of those characters who is a cinematic creation. He joins James Stewart’s Elwood P. Dowd and anyone else who was ever sprinkled with something special that enchants the world around them, whether they’re angelic or extra-terrestrial. But Brother John is a different version for a different generation, and he’s played by none other than Sidney Poitier.

He provides a quiet catharsis for a black audience as a cipher of a man that no one can get a read on. The film itself has a no-frills TV movie aesthetic that somehow still gels with its ambitions.

John comes back to town when he gets news of his sister’s death. The last time he came back was when there was another death in the family. The local doctor (Will Geer), who brought John into the world, is curious about where he comes from and where he goes, but no one takes the old man too seriously.

Still, the police manage to hound him because they’re suspicious of someone they cannot easily intimidate and put in a box. The doctor’s self-promoting son (Bradford Dillman) also needles him in his attempt to gain local prominence. The town’s leaders are looking to quell a factory from unionizing. All of this feels rather mundane in detail. John seems to have nothing to do with any of it.

They remain uncomfortable with him because he’s so inscrutable, well-traveled, knows a myriad of languages, and finds no need to divulge all the shades of his character. He’s contented this way, spending time with family and even calling on a pretty schoolteacher (Beverly Todd) who asks for his company. He won’t play by their preordained script.

There’s one painfully excruciating scene where some cops pay a house call on a black family. The man of the house is left so powerless as he’s subjugated and persecuted in his own home in front of his kids. John is at the table too. Quiet at first. Almost emotionless. Is he just going to sit there or spur himself into action?

In this uncanny moment, he goes down to the basement with one of the officers and proceeds to whoop the tyrant wordlessly with a bevy of skills the backwater lawmen could never dream of. It’s the kind of power exerted over malevolent authority that one could only imagine in your wildest dreams.

As such, Brother John fits in somewhere analogous to the Blaxploitation space but as only Poitier could do it. He wasn’t the same bombastic militant cool dude a generation craved for and received in Shaft or Superfly. He still has his measured exterior, and yet he equally makes quick work of any antagonists: racists, malcontents, white, black, or otherwise. It’s a bit of a boyish fantasy watching a hero vanquish all evildoers quite spectacularly. But, after all, this is what movies are for.

3/5 Stars

Norma Rae (1979)

Norma_rae_ver2.jpgIf you had any trouble possibly liking Sally Field before — consequently, one of the sweetest actresses ever to cross the screen — then there’s little gripe to be had with her any longer. Norma Rae really does feel like a gift for her. Both as a story to be a part of and a character to portray since both speak to us intuitively as an audience. 

Marty Ritt offers a story that is as close a representation of his work as you might find — a narrative that’s not flashy but more importantly and yet still meaningful and chock full of human characters and conflicts. However, it’s not just sharing those elements for the sake of it. There is a rational impetus behind it all, setting out to shine a light on social grievances in order to enact some form of change. 

Again, he gets a script from husband and wife powerhouse Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch who fortuitously helped define his career with stories such as The Long Hot Summer (1958),  Hud (1963), Hombre (1967), and this feature.

Its authentic inspiration stems from real life textile champion Crystal Lee Sutton, a worker in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. She spearheaded the unionization of her textile mill in an industry that has long held out against any regulation partially due to bullheaded leadership and ignorant lay workers who didn’t know any other life. There’s the arc in a nutshell. 

 Because Norma Rae (Field) is one of those people and she’s lived within a community of the very same folks all her life. Her father struggles to keep up with the strict regimen, her mother is losing her hearing systematically, and Webster has a couple young kids though she’s never officially married. As they might say, when she was a young woman, she knew a couple of men in the Biblical sense. 

Part of what makes her so likable is the trait of a genuine straight-shooter with the alacrity to do what she sees fit. When Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman) sets up shop in town long-term, to try and get support for a union, most of the locals are wary of the outsider. Norma Rae asks him almost innocently, “Are you a Jew?” He responds in the affirmative and she responds that she’s never met one before. 

Though Reuben is a congenial fellow, he’s the definition of a fish-out-of-water, bred on New York society with a quality education, Dylan Thomas, and an attorney girlfriend waiting for him who his mother loves.

Ron Leibman does a fine job in the role because he doesn’t just play it charismatic and likable through every beat. He manages to skirt this fine line where there are genuine flashes of malice where we question Reuben as a person. Is he simply taking advantage of people or forcing others into a vision of what he thinks will be good for them? He even acts like a grade-A jerk and a bit of an instigator when he’s feeling up to it. 

Thus, Norma Rae grounds him as someone who does have a full stake in this fight, in this community, and this story. This is her job, her family, her reputation all put out in the open — all on the line and she’s willing to go for it. That takes true gumption and a fighting spirit few individuals can muster. Boy has she got it. She’s also capable of the southern cajoling that made men like LBJ such effective movers and shakers. 

However, the film constantly plays with this tension within her. Because she’s not a rich person by any means. When she’s given a promotion to a spot checker, her hourly rate goes up incrementally and she subsequently loses the respect of all her colleagues as someone who has gone to the enemy. The relationships mean more to her than the pay just as a better future has greater precedence over sacrificing her time and pouring heart and soul into Reuben’s cause.

Norma Rae also has a pulse of the ultimate good which is admirable. She goes to the local church — an all-white establishment — posing two questions to the reverend she has known all her life. First, asking if he would call her a Christian? He smiles and nods, with a lapse or two, yes.

But then, more pointedly, she asks if he would call himself a Christian? He’s still so caught up in the idiotic dogma that blacks and whites cannot mix. And yet for Norma Rae, the bottom line is there ought to be justice — and the church, if it’s really going to practice what it preaches, must be involved in this same dialogue.

It’s not always the words spoken but the images seen that leave a lasting impact. A funeral sequence in the rain. No words just a hearse being lowered into the ground inch by inch. The point is made better than any eulogy by man There’s Norma Rae transcribing an anti-union message on toilet paper to pass on to Reuben or the heart-to-heart she has with her kids to head-off any of the scurrilous slander they might pick up. There’s her furious struggle as two policemen try and drag her to a police car. 

Likewise, Field standing up with a cardboard cutout simply scribbled with the block letters “UNION.” She slowly circles around, resolutely, again and again. People notice her, stop for a moment of consideration and then all turn off their machines in a simultaneous act of solidarity and defiance. 

This particular sequence goes on for several minutes and the sequence is allowed to unwind wordlessly as we slowly hear the din grow progressively dimmer. It could have easily been cut down to its bare essentials and yet in this way the full brunt of the impact has been made apparent as we are forced to contemplate the full gravity. It’s an everyday action that takes on monumental dramatic importance. 

The same could be said when the ballots are read in consideration of the new union. It’s back and forth. The tension again is palpable but it’s the jubilation on the faces that captures me. In every one of these instances, Ritt gives the immaculate illusion he lets it happen. No tricks. No extra flourishes. Just all right there for us to be a part of. He’s at his best with human stories of fully realized people working through things of seemingly genuine importance. That is Norma Rae to a tee. 

4/5 Stars