The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those left behind filled out desultory missing-persons reports, then moved on themselves.
— Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1967
Like a love-child of Joan Didion and Martin Scorsese, THE INCIDENT etched a portrait of entropy in American society in the 1960s, played out inside a Bronx-to-Grand Central subway car, by the rage of a couple of hoods and their threatened, humiliated victims.
Three years before the film’s production, the New York Times story of Kitty Genovese‘s murder by a random assailant in front of her home — a death according to the Times which neighbors witnessed from their windows yet did nothing — made the U.S. aware of an ugly societal shift in the core of its humanity. It was this American Abyss, growing through the 1960s, that the film’s creative team deconstructed with an autopsy-like examination. [THE INCIDENT‘s scriptwriter, Nicholas E. Baehr, had an earlier, shorter version of this script produced on TV a few months after the Genovese murder for the NBC anthology series, The DuPont Show of the Week.]
An independent production shot at night on the streets of the Bronx and in a mockup of an IRT subway car (permission wasn’t granted by the transit system to film on the real thing), THE INCIDENT in retrospect is a benchmark of the hierarchial fall and readjusted playing field of the U.S. by the end of the ‘sixties: a time which wrought the most political, societal and artistic social chance since perhaps the Renaissance.
For, as the concept of this film dramatized the devolution of what was then identified as American Society, its execution spelled out previously hidden aspects of the U.S. that became visible through the fractures.
The rebel filmmaking employed in shooting night-for-night on the streets of New York boroughs and the handheld shots inside the claustrophobic car said as much about societal change as the subway’s new pecking order, where those with the loudest voices and least regard for others get to have their way.
And in this respect, THE INCIDENT went straight for the jugular. With the fall of ‘polite’ society, those who had been subtly and invisibly oppressed were now openly humiliated. The lone Gay guy (Robert Fields) was the first to be singled out and harassed. The African-American couple (Ruby Dee and Brock Peters) was humiliated into subservience. An elderly couple (Thelma Ritter and Jack Gilford), who attempted physically to battle the hoodlums, was broken into wimpering submission.
Like the Didion quote above, the aggregation of actors brought into the production reflected the decline and spinout of the Hollywood studio system. Newcomers bound for stardom (Martin Sheen and Beau Bridges) mixed with A-List Hollywood names from the previous decade (Thelma Ritter, Jan Sterling, Gary Merrill). The rest of the casting followed this vein of strong, alternative choices in actors: Ruby Dee, Brock Peters, Jack Gilford, Donna Mills and a surprisingly effective Ed McMahon as a protective dad with his child sleeping in his arms.
Usually with a filming situation such as this, where dialog drives the narrative set within a confined space, the graphic-art aspects of cinema take a backseat. But Larry Peerce moved the camera, went for low angles, and dished out deep space and claustrophobic closeness in the very first shot. Moving the eye in an intelligent pattern across the picture plane, when shooting in a single, stationary locale, required a deep understanding of film, which Peerce grasped and spoke with in every shot.
This film itself gives little resolution, which leaves it open to contemporary examination. Does the film show human nature, or is it more representative of American society’s behavior? Has this psychology of intimidation moved from the micro- to the macrocosm, as shouting and intimidation by street hoods has morphed into the bully-pulpits of mass media pundits? As the opening Didion quote seems in many ways to delineate contemporary U.S. life, so this film also seems to reach into an aspect of our everyday experience.