One night in New York City, and a couple of lowlifes are keeping the owner of a pool hall up by refusing to stop playing now that everyone else has gone home. He asks them to leave, but they threaten him, though their game finishes shortly and after another cursory bit of posturing they escape into the darkness of the street outside. Joe Ferrone (Tony Musante) wants to carry on having their blend of fun, and after his pal Artie Connors (Martin Sheen) hassles a couple who manage to avoid them, they make up their minds to get some cash to continue, which they do by grabbing an elderly man, dragging him into an alley, and beating him until he is as good as dead...
Not exactly the best advertisement for The Big Apple, The Incident was drawn from a television script, a one-off play that was expanded by its author Nicholas E. Baehr into over an hour and a half, beefing up the opening sequences which introduce us to a collection of characters who will be riding the late night train. Director Larry Peerce had previously done very well with a much-respected indie called One Potato, Two Potato, but had subsequently found work in film hard to come by so had turned to television; when this screenplay showed up he knew exactly how to stage it, and what looks realistic on the screen was in fact the result of clever staging and sets, plus camerawork.
For the first half, we were offered small portraits of the passengers, all of them dissatisfied with life in some way, some with more justification than others. It was accurate to say they were sketched with a view to giving us an "all of human life is here" impression, to further increase the horror when things go very badly very quickly, which Peerce would return to in his later thriller Two Minute Warning during the following decade. Indeed, the construction here was a curious forerunner of the disaster movie genre that film was part of, with almost soap opera-style vignettes leading with ominous dread to the ultimate calamity they never thought would ever happen to them.
In this case, that was not an earthquake or an inferno or even a crash, it was the meeting with the two worst passengers imaginable: after spending half the film away from them, Joe and Artie return with a vengeance, boarding the carriage and proceeding to terrorise each of the riders, practically in turn. The most disturbing thing was what we were being told about city living ever since the sensational Kitty Genovese murder, where residents of an apartment block ignored the woman's screams as she was killed outside their windows, and that was clearly in everyone's minds when they made The Incident: that when you are not merely witness to a crime, serious or not, it is shamefully probable you are going to do nothing to intervene because you are too scared to get involved.
The idea that if you do get involved you will suffer terrible consequences as the criminals focus their attention on you was more the theme here, while the Genovese attack was more the result of city dwellers not giving a shit about their fellow man or woman anymore, but this was secure in the knowledge they were two sides of the same coin. The more everyone in that carriage suffers, the greater the thugs' delight grows, they act like playground bullies and these people who thought they were civilised, who had at least left this kind of petty brutality behind in childhood, are dragged back in to cower and splutter when confronted by two men they should stand up to, yet have broken the rules of society and left their victims broken emotionally since they have no idea how to react. Now trapped in the carriage, the pressure cooker atmosphere grows unbearable; for a sixties film from a big studio (but looking like an indie) this was incredibly intense. With a group of performers who were excellent but largely didn't often get a chance to get their teeth into material of this substance, The Incident started schematically, but hit upon a savage truth that's hard to take. Music by Terry Knight, also superb (check out the opening theme - it was his only score).
[Eureka release this on Blu-ray, with the following features:
1080p high-definition digital transfer, available for the first time ever on Blu-ray
Uncompressed monaural soundtrack (on Blu-ray)
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
Brand new and exclusive audio commentary by film critic and writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas
Audio Commentary with Director Larry Peerce and Film Historian Nick Redman
Post-screening Q&A with director Larry Peerce, filmed at the 2017 Wisconsin Film Festival [30 mins]
Original Theatrical Trailer
PLUS: a collector's booklet featuring new writing by film writer Samm Deighan, and critic and journalist Barry Forshaw; Welcome to Fear City: A Survival Guide for Visitors to the City of New York, a reprint of the notorious pamphlet distributed at the height of New York's crime epidemic.]