“The Incident” of the 1967 thriller of the same name is an act of terror: two young New York hoodlums (played by Martin Sheen, making his feature debut, and Tony Musante) board a late-night subway train in the Bronx and proceed to intimidate and humiliate the passengers, who they prevent from leaving the car. The story was originally presented as an hour-long 1963 television play titled Ride with Terror, written by Nicholas E. Baehr for The DuPont Show of the Week. Producers Edward Meadow and Monroe Sachson acquired the rights and raised money for an independent production of Baehr's expanded script, featuring added characters and additional scenes.
Director Larry Peerce had made an impressive feature debut in 1964 with One Potato, Two Potato, a drama that confronted the then-touchy issue of interracial marriage and won an award at Cannes. The promising young filmmaker ended up directing few features but instead spent his career directing for TV (including episodes of Batman and Branded). According to a Variety report, Sachson and Monroe hired Peerce based on an episode of the TV series The Felony Squad that he had directed.
The Incident features a diverse ensemble of newcomers, rising talents and Hollywood veterans. Along with Sheen and Musante (reprising the role he played in the original television production) is a young Beau Bridges (playing an injured soldier on leave) in his first major screen role and Donna Mills in her screen debut. Legendary character actress Thelma Ritter makes one of her final screen appearances as half of an elderly New York Jewish couple (the great Jack Gilford is her bitter husband). Brock Peters and Ruby Dee play the sole African-American couple on the train, and Jan Sterling and Gary Merrill have major roles. And there's one more familiar face making his big screen debut: Ed McMahon, at the time famous as Johnny Carson's sidekick, plays a harried husband and father who spends the film protecting his sleeping daughter.
Peerce improvised with the cast to get to the raw emotions of the situation, especially with Sheen and Musante. "I knew if these two men didn't elicit fear out of [the actors], the film wouldn't work," Peerce recalled. So he brought the cast together to improvise a scene on the train with the two young men taunting the passengers. At first Peerce had a sinking feeling as acting exercises failed to come to life ("it was awful," he remembers), until Musante focused in on Brock Peters and the two actors went at it, the tensions building as Musante brought Peters to the edge of fury. "It was electric," is how Peerce recalled the moment. "I turned to everybody and said, 'The improv is over. Do you all understand what the film is about?' They said yes and all filed out and that's how we started the film."
Peerce shot in black and white on location in the Bronx to get a gritty realism. He had hoped to shoot in real subway trains and transit stations but was turned down by the New York City Transit Authority. Director of photography Gerald Hirschfeld rode trains with a hidden camera in a suitcase to get background footage of the city rushing past the moving train and a small crew stole shots of trains arriving and leaving stations. They even grabbed shots of the actors on real platforms in a surveillance style, with a camera across the street. The bulk of the film was shot at the Biograph Studios in the Bronx, where subway stations and a meticulous recreation of an IRT subway car, based on original blueprints and outfitted with a removable roof and wall to get camera equipment inside, were built by production designer Emanuel "Manny" Gerard.
Just days into principal photography, the production shut down when the financers pulled out and, as Peerce describes it, "the checks started bouncing." Twentieth Century-Fox producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck stepped in and production resumed quickly, with the entire cast and crew still on board. According to Peerce, they let him continue without studio interference. The one suggestion that Zanuck made was to move the scene of Musante and Sheen mugging a man in an alley to the front of the film, which Peerce credits with giving the film a stronger structure.
The Incident opened to mixed reviews and disappointing box-office returns, but in recent years its searing portrait of fear, intolerance, anger and indifference has been reevaluated as a striking neo-noir and a powerful drama.
By Sean Axmaker