The Incident (1967) is a jarring film about toxic and “passive” masculinity as cruel spectator sport

Omar Moore
5 min readJan 19, 2021
Jan Sterling as Muriel in this screen grab from “The Incident” (1967), a fascinating and deeply disturbing film.

Film Review: “The Incident” (1967)

Larry Peerce’s “The Incident” is a savage, unremittingly intense experience parked rude and hostile, claustrophobically right up in our faces. We’re held hostage by the shocking, depraved torment and terrorizing of no less than 14 passengers in a single New York City subway car at roughly two in the morning during what feels like an eternity.

The stark black-and-white footage feels like a potent mirror of our true primal selves as human beings, that disturbing, unregulated self. Surely, Mr. Peerce’s film in color would taint, scar and obstruct these desperately selfish and troubled reptilian creatures of New York City.

“The Incident” is like a Milgram experiment (see later “Compliance”, 2012) in malevolence and anthropology in which characters are first seen in their own habitats, acting out their own mix of frustrations, depravities, hatreds, angers, violence, addictions and longings. None of the characters held captive by the relentless subway violence is honest or truthful about who they are as people — except, possibly both the film’s lead male terrorizers.

As played by then-film debutant Martin Sheen and the excellent Tony Musante, first-rate and razor-sharp as Joe, the sadistic terrorizers are extremely realistic and even downright intoxicating to the point of crude magnetism and sex appeal. All others in their company are limited, trapped, contemptuous and cynical, even with the repeated and ironic refrains of one older white male passenger of, “there are decent people here!” Yet, as intrusions and other assorted atrocities against women and men play out in flagrant, unblinking view of a passenger car with seven men (including two military men) in it where, exactly, are the “decent people”?

Brock Peters and Ruby Dee in “The Incident” (1967). This video description contains mild thematic spoilers.

The scariest, though least surprising thing about “The Incident” (the film is deliberately unclear *which* incident — there are many, and that’s the film’s point) even before a collision course with anti-social cretins, is that the criminals in their abhorrent attacks on the already sparring married couples and conflicted, tell them the truth about who they really are as human beings. One climactic, erotically-charged encounter with Joe (Musante) and Muriel (Jan Sterling, jarring and powerful in her own right especially in the subway car sequences) where Joe says “do you really want me to do that, lady?” is unsettling and revealing in its suggestive power and truth. Earlier we have seen the married and presumably sexually dissastified Muriel (shot strictly from the knees down in the foreground of a shot) pacing right near the edge of a subway platform, literally prepared to go out on a limb.

Speaking of going out on limbs, “The Incident” is its own dangerous and mischievous adventure, stealing shots of the actual New York City subway on the fly (the Transit Authority declined the director and DP permission to use the subway) and adorning its background with such (now at least) offending advertisement posters about working with the mentally “retarded”, promising that “you will be paid” for doing so. There’s a subway poster that says “BOY” on it, as much a representation of the toxic (and passive) masculinity that smashes throughout this risible and bleak ordeal as it is news that the ferocious and brutal racist attacks that have been wrought.

The masculinity being flaunted or blunted in “The Incident” is mostly toxic, and it is usually a backfiring mechanism exposing some barren, wholly wretched individuals who all end up getting heavy doses of their own medicine. The masculine posturing is also contoured by the kinds of relationship that men have with women in the film. The male and female interactions are subtext and overlay, one of the most interesting and truthful elements of “The Incident”.

Women remind men (at least these men) in “The Incident” that what men say or don’t do carries no sway or stronghold. The women in the film are looking for “real” men as at least vaguely financial and morally assuaged and alpha male strivers, not capitulators or people who fail to stand up to other men, even when those men are attacking their spouses or girlfriends.

While watching some of the most gripping and heartwrenching moments in Mr Peerce’s film you can’t help (or at least I couldn’t help) but think about Kitty Genovese. “The Incident” was shot roughly three years after the brutal murder in Queens, New York of Kitty Genovese, where close to 40 bystanders saw her murder on the streets in the early morning hours and did little if anything at all, according to the New York Times (in a story that has albeit since been widely discredited, even by the Times.)

Arguably some of the same women in “The Incident” enable or at least appear to desire a toxic or morally opprobrious masculinity in their men as a spark or stimulant to a better relationship (?), while other women in the film simultaneously suppress in their men a righteous masculinity, pacifying men in moments where perhaps they shouldn’t. (You be the judge.) Some of this pacification is adroitly done for self-preservation against a larger, systemic reality, in the case of one man who faces a torrent of racist abuse. (That same man glories in watching the violations occur before him. “If you wanna bash some heads together that’s alright with me!”) Other types of sublimation of male posturing however, is done in service of selfish, perverse amusement, flagellation or emasculation. But the men to whom this applies bring it upon themselves from the very beginning.

All of this is to say that, in Mr. Peerce’s thriller there’s very little difference between the captive terrorized passengers and the vicious, psychopathic criminals. Lines cross and blur. Curiosity and criminality teems through the grimy, brittle, rough-cool terrain that is New York City late at night. “The Incident” shows us in stark, horrifying ways that all of these people deserve each other and have a subway car load of things in common.

Omar Moore’s audio review of THE INCIDENT (1967), directed by Larry Peerce.

Cast: Tony Musante, Beau Bridges, Thelma Ritter, Martin Sheen, Brock Peters, Ruby Dee, Ed McMahon, Jan Sterling, Mike Kellin, Jack Gilford, Diana Van Der Vlis, Gary Merrill.

“The Incident” was shown on Turner Classic Movies on Sunday, January 17, 2021 in the U.S.

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