It can just take one night to rattle and bone-break one’s entire perspective. It’s an intense if not outright harrowing thought, that your whole life could be upheaved into pure rubble in just a few hours. This is exactly what happens to a subway car full of people in the extremely underrated 1967 film, The Incident. Based on a 1963 DuPont Show of the Week movie, entitled Ride with Terror, The Incident is a cult film that has mysteriously languished, despite having an all star cast, a terrific soundtrack and being taut from the opening frame right down to the end credits.
Despite all of this, it remains unreleased on DVD and Blu Ray, with only a long out of print VHS and Laserdisc release, not to mention the occasional TV airing, to its credit. So why is a film this stellar still semi-obscure? Other than the lack of creative justice that has plagued the arts since the dawn of man, a lot of it could have something to do with the unrelenting grittiness that permeates the screen. This film reeks of the sweaty seediness of a warm New York evening in the late ‘60’s, with our two main anti-heroes, Joe (Tony Musante) and Artie (Martin Sheen), heading towards Times Square after an evening of pool playing and low rent thuggery. The stark black and white cinematography, courtesy of Gerald Hirschfield, who went on to work on Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, gives the film a documentary meets violent pulp novel feel. Everything looks beautiful in the ugliest of ways. In fact, the beauty of The Incident is its complete surrender to the ugliness of the human condition.
All of this is conveyed with our cast of characters, most of whom rank very high on the dysfunctional scale. There’s a working class married couple with child, trying to get to their home in Flushing, with the husband (played by Ed McMahon, in his best role ever, and yes, that includes his turn as a pimp in Slaughter’s Big Rip Off) constantly bitching about money and how he doesn’t want any more kids. Continuing the couple theme, there’s a young pair on a date, with the amorous mook badgering his pretty and hesitant date (a young and unrecognizable Donna Mills) into basically putting out. He’s borderline rapey and she ends up being insecure enough to put up with this horny bastard. (Note to our readers: remember that being alone is always preferable to being in the company of assholes. Always.) There’s another married couple, this time an older, Jewish one, made up of Sam (the legendary Jack Gilford) and Bertha (the equally legendary Thelma Ritter) Beckerman, who are constantly bickering over whether or not their son is a good boy or no-good-nik. Then there’s Harry (Mike Kellin) and Muriel (Jan Sterling) Purvis, a schoolteacher and his status hungry ice queen wife. Our last married couple to board is a young, attractive African American pair, including Joan (Ruby Dee), a peaceful activist and social worker and her boneheaded and overly aggressive husband, Arnold (Brock Peters), who tries to pick a fight with the ticket taker before getting on the subway.
The last pair is two young soldiers, Philip Carmatti (Robert Bannard) and our catalyst hailing from Oklahoma, Felix Teflinger (Beau Bridges). In addition to our pairs and families, there is also a recovering alcoholic trying to get his life back on track, a wino passed out on the subway and a lonely, repressed gay man. All of these people are about to have their lives changed forever when Joe and Artie get on board, making their grand entrance by being as loud and obnoxious as possible.
But what initially seems like two drunken clowns quickly turns sinister, when Joe and Artie start to systematically go to each person and break them down psychologically. They start off messing with the bum, threatening to give him a hot foot, when our recovering alcoholic, Douglas (Gary Merrill) steps in, making himself a target, leaving Joe to retort, “Is he a friend of yours, Mister?” It’s all downhill from there, with the two standouts being the scene where Joe sidles up next to Donna Mills and starts asking her date, ‘Hey Mack, what’s she like in the sack?” The guy, Tony (Victor Arnold), once full of dumb testosterone bravado, is now nervous and shaky, weakly defending her, stating that “she’s a good girl.” Musante, not missing one inch of a beat, eyes him up and down, asking, “If she’s a good girl, what’s she doing with youuuuu?” This culminates with Joe toying with her hair, while she looks frightened and her pussy boyfriend looks away, leading to the line, “Well honey, if you change your mind, look me up. Name’s Joe Ferrone. I’ll know what to do with you. I’LL KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH YOU.” This leaves Artie to respond, all wide eyed and brimming with sarcasm, “Woaaaah Joe!,” resulting with both of them laughing as another relationship is obliterated in the wake.
The second one and arguably the most harrowing is Joe’s confrontation with Arnold, whom up to that point, has been enjoying the ugly spectacle, almost drooling with the possibility of violence, while his poor wife looks on, horrified. When he engages Joe, saying “I’m with you guys,” the look on Musante’s face can only be described as shark like, with his dark eyes black and pinpoint predatory. You know this is not going to be pretty and indeed when Joe tells him that, “I wouldn’t be friends with you if you were the last man…..you want to know why? Cause I don’t like black.” It only gets worse from there with Arnold being internally ripped into two, especially once Artie starts harassing Joan, with her crying and pleading with her husband that it’s not worth it. The interesting thing is that it never gets directly physical. In fact, up until the very end, Joe and Artie are never overtly violent. Sure, they are not opposed to using their body language and borderline touching (slight shoving, small grabs, etc), but the biggest damage done is more emotional and mental.
The whole dynamic between Joe and Artie is very fascinating, bringing to mind another villainous and predatory pair from fiction, Dracula and Renfield. Musante is sinister and handsome, roaming around in a pair of stylish and wrinkled dress slacks, matching suit jacket and his dress shirt completely unbuttoned throughout the whole movie. Even though his character is one savvy sociopath, he is charismatic to the extent that you can’t take your eyes off of him anytime he is on screen. Artie, played perfectly by a very young Martin Sheen in his feature film debut, is manic eyed and following Joe’s lead like a crazed magnet. He might not be eating flies but he is the sidekick to Joe in every way. They both are looking for sick thrills, with the difference being that Artie, at his core, is goony while Joe is truly dangerous because he is intellectually on the ball. It is telling that when Felix finally gets fed up enough to actually take a stand, resulting with him beating the crap out of Joe, Artie doesn’t know what to do. It’s almost like he is frozen without his master. Of course, that leaves him with a slightly better excuse than the rest of the car, whom all just sit there, slack-jawed and powerless. As Felix slumps down, bleeding as his buddy finally goes over to check on him, there is the tangible disappointment in his eyes. With Felix, it was not necessarily Joe or Artie themselves that changed him for the worse, but the fact that a car full of people were too apathetic and weak to stand up for their fellow human. Losing faith is painful enough but when it is humanity itself that has let you down, there is no full recovery for that. Some scars never totally heal.
The Incident is one of the most perfect and certainly most cynical, bordering on nihilistic movies ever. The film is unwavering in its mirror to society, revealing the many cracks, pockmarks and bruises within the human condition. It also begs the question of not only why isn’t this film better known and out with a spiffy Criterion-type release, but why isn’t Tony Musante a bigger name? Because that man is absolute dynamite.