Monday, January 2, 2012

DVD Wishlist: THE INCIDENT (1967)

A long-ago staple of late-night TV, Larry Peerce's 1967 film THE INCIDENT is one of the unheralded classics of 1960s cinema and is long overdue for rediscovery.  It was issued on VHS in the 1980s, and has aired on Fox Movie Channel on a few occasions in recent years.  You can also see a really poor quality print of it in ten-minute increments on YouTube, but it's time for a high-quality, definitive DVD/Blu-ray release.  I've never been able to shake this film after I recorded a late-night airing when I was maybe 11-12 years old (I "set the VCR for it," to use the appropriate verbiage of the era). 

THE INCIDENT is a brutal, harrowing drama about two sadistic hoods (Tony Musante and, in his film debut, Martin Sheen) who terrorize a group of NYC subway passengers at 2:00 am.  Everyone witnesses them terrorizing the other passengers, but no one does anything.  Musante's character, in particular, has a keen sense of what people's weaknesses are, and immediately pounces on them and exploits them, whether they're a sexually-frustrated wife (Jan Sterling) fed up with her weak-willed doormat of a husband (Mike Kellin) or a young gay man (Robert Fields) or an African-American couple (Brock Peters, Ruby Dee), who end up on the receiving end of one of the ugliest racist diatribes ever heard courtesy of Musante's character.  Other passengers include an elderly couple (Jack Gilford, Thelma Ritter), a pair of military guys on leave (one of them played by Beau Bridges), a recovering alcoholic (Gary Merrill), a young couple who just want to make out (Victor Arnold and a young Donna Mills), and a bickering couple (Ed McMahon, Diana van der Vlis) with a young daughter.  Yes...THAT Ed McMahon.  And he's great in this.

I don't know why this film isn't better-known.  It's certainly worthy of a DVD/Blu-ray release, and has been licensed for a possible release by the limited edition specialty label Twilight Time but, according to Twilight Time co-founder and esteemed Sam Peckinpah historian Nick Redman, "the transfer needs a major upgrade before we can put it out."  That's a step in the right direction.

Effectively shot in stark black & white, THE INCIDENT, once it gets in the subway car (we're introduced to all of the characters beforehand), is a claustrophobic, nerve-shredding experience that's still shocking decades later.  Released a year before the MPAA ratings system was implemented, THE INCIDENT would almost certainly still get an R rating today. And it's not just the discomfort with some of the language and the actions, but the general feel of it.  It gets under your skin and stays with you.  You can smell the sweat and the cigarette smoke.  You need to shower when it's over.  And Musante and Sheen are unforgettable playing two of the most repulsive characters you've ever seen.  Sheen is the more passive of the two, but Musante is just off-the-charts despicable.  Musante is a criminally underrated actor who should've been huge, but for whatever reason, it just didn't happen.  He always stayed busy up until recent years (he was imprisoned mobster Nino Schibetta on the first season of OZ and was last seen in 2007's WE OWN THE NIGHT) and had a pretty good run in the 1970s alternating between movies and TV, but he should've been a major star on the level of Pacino and De Niro, and his work in THE INCIDENT proves it. 

Here's a few shots of Musante in action.  Just look at him.  Look at those epic sideburns.  You already hate this character.

Hopefully, the Twilight Time licensing leads to a DVD/Blu-ray release down the road.  THE INCIDENT is a bleak and profoundly unsettling piece of work and it's a film that's waited very patiently for some recognition.

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