An unheralded classic of urban gritology, ‘The Incident‘ is a b/w film from 1967. The story is primarily, and claustrophobically, confined to a New York City subway car. As it hurtles and rattles through dark underground tunnels, it becomes a terror ride for a cluster of local types. Two young thugs, including a teen-aged Martin Sheen, taunt, threaten and intimidate the other passengers. They take over the car and hold the other riders hostage to their whims, their sadism, and their unabated cruelty.
The passengers on this night ride include Beau Bridges as a soldier with a broken arm from the mid-west and his Manhattan GI buddy, Ed McMahan as a harried young father (nope, no “Herrrre’s Johnny!” in this flick), a whiny old husband and wife, a gay guy, a black couple, and a few other typical subway strap hangers. An under cover cop disguised as a sleeping alcoholic stays that way, helping no one. As the two thugs enter the subway car, they begin to size up their prey. The night’s young, and they’re looking for ‘kicks’. Like most bullies, they have an almost intuitive sense of their victims’ weak spots. And they work them, mercilessly and methodically. Other than for the injured soldier, all the other passengers either pretend to ignore, or revel in, the suffering of others. The angry black guy, played by Brock Peters, even thoroughly enjoys watching “whitey beat whitey”; but of course it’s not long for his turn to come. The passengers are, in turn, threatened, beaten and thoroughly humiliated. The thug’s delight is hard to take. Eventually, the soldier, alone and abandoned, decides to fight back. His dignity and courage help to reset a bizarrely out of whack moral compass. The seemingly endless ride is finally over; though the memories will continue to haunt.
A few months ago, the local media was hot to pick up on the story of a homeless man who, after coming to the rescue of a female mugging victim, died on a well-trafficked NY street. And yes, there was the obligatory video of passers by doing just that; literally stepping over the dying man, as they went about their business. As TV reporters scurried to the scene, they eagerly searched-and found-some of these folks. Most responded that they thought the old guy was just sleeping on the sidewalk. Of course, this then prompted the phony soul-searching for which the media is so notorious. They all, without exception, dredged up the old (and infamous) New York story of Kitty Genovese. This young woman was raped and murdered in her apartment, while the neighbors simply ignored her desperate screams for help. This tragic case did wonders, as you can imagine, for New York’s reputation.
Unfortunately, the nastiness portrayed in The Incident can be considered rather mild when compared to today’s substantially elevated levels of violence. Because now it’s not just about a couple of aimless dirtbags getting cheap thrills by harassing a bunch of weary subway riders. Today, the venues for violence, like airplanes, schools, cruise ships, etc. have expanded, as have the so-called motivations of the criminals who infest them. No matter whether the perpretrators’ reasons are religious or political, the stark reality for the victims remain the same. The Incident shows us that ignoring violence, or appeasing the perps, isn’t just the cowards way out, it just doesn’t work. That’s why The Incident needs to be re-made, with an updated and fresh look at who we really are. We need it now more than ever.