50 Years after The Incident, Director Larry Peerce’s Films Still Too Relevant

Written by Lesley Coffin

50 years ago, the birth of new Hollywood came to full bloom. After Godfather of the movement like Roger Corman and Dennis Hopper, the children of Hollywood’s golden age took their place. The 1968 academy Awards signaled this major change in the industry, when films like In the Heat of the Night Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Cool Hand Luke, competed alongside classical cinema such as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Dr. Doolittle. But there were other films of significance, even smaller on scale and budget, which deserve consideration on their 50th anniversary. And other directors who were a part of that important change.

One of those directors, Larry Peerce, has been nearly forgotten by cinephiles, largely due to the unavailability of many of his films for years. Since his final feature, the ill-fated (and he feels ill-conceived) Wired, Peerce left feature films and worked exclusively in television, including several high quality TV films. But his work as a theatrical director deserves consideration now, and I’m not the only person who seems to agree. Last year, Shout Factor released the restored Blu-ray of his film Two-Minute Warning, and festivals and revival houses screened his debut feature One Potato, Two Potato (partially due to its close connection to Jeff Nichols Oscar nominated Loving). The Academy honored him with a screening of Goodbye Columbus. And today New York’s Film Forum will host the 50th Anniversary screening of The Incident, an unsung masterpiece of early independent film; a document of New York City’s gritty underbelly and tragically still relevant.

The premise focuses on an evening subway train and the passengers who share a terrifying ride with two thugs. The film was based on a television special titled Ride of Terror which starred a young actor named Tony Musante. Musante would return to reprise his role as the violent hoodlum, joined by a lackey played by newcomer Martin Sheen. On the trainer were two soldiers (Beau Bridges and Robert Bannard), an older Jewish couple (Thelma Ritter and Jack Gifford), a middle aged couple (Ed McMahon and Dianna Van der Vils) and their daughter, a middle-aged married couple (Jan Sterling and Mike Kellin), a teenage boy and girl (Donna Mills and Victor Arnold), an African-American couple (Brock Peters and Ruby Dee), an alcoholic (Gary Merrill) and a gay man (Robert Fields). All are taunted, isolated, and threatened over a 90 minute period by Musante and Sheen’s characters until the “incident” erupts in an act of brutal violence.

The Incident (1967)

Unlike the DuPount Hour production of Ride with Terror, the film is in retrospect a remarkable achievement on both technical level of filmmaking and thought-provoking allegory. Ride with Terror had a typical, stage quality (common in television special in the 60s), but the film’s visual style is rich and complex, despite most of the film taking place in one, unremarkable location. The film uses a complex cinematic language to convey the tension and rising stakes as time passes. While avoiding visual repetitiveness with a variety of angles and shots. Peerce choose not to try to avoid the set’s claustrophobic qualities but increasingly stresses them to create audience anxiety which would mirror the characters.

While Peerce had directed One Potato, Two Potato in 1964 (taking the film to Cannes where Barbara Barrie won the best actress award), Peerce says he truly learned the technical side of filmmaking necessary for this type of film during the two years he worked in television. Pierce got his start directing local, live TV before making One Potato, Two Potato. But after the film didn’t result in additional jobs in film and he didn’t work for close to a year, he took directing jobs on filmed television such as Branded, The Loner, Batman, The Green Hornet, and Run for Your Life. He directed over 20 shows in a two year period and the tight restrictions of TV helped him learn how to be a lean but effective filmmaker. In an interview with Mr. Peerce, he explained that two years of television is where he learned the craft of directing, explaining “its one thing to do a dramatic movie that’s kind of slow. But a film like The Incident was a complex little film. For a guy like me, if I hadn’t had those two years to learn my craft, I would have made a mess of the whole thing.”

The restrictions of the TV industry in the 1960s taught the emerging independent, New Hollywood filmmakers how to make films on a restricted budget. “I did half hour and hour shows. In those days you did a half hour show in three days, and if you didn’t deliver, you were fired. If you were doing an hour show you had six days, although some magical times when you had to film on location or something like that, you would get a 7th. But again, if you didn’t deliver you would be fired and you wouldn’t work again. My first filmed show was Branded. I was given a contract for four or five shows, but on a one by one pick up basis. The producer was a nice guy and when I first met him he said to me, I have three things to say to you. Seven O’clock, Seven O’clock, Seven O’clock. And I knew what he meant. You finish by seven each of those three days or you won’t work for me again. It was a great training ground for a lot of us.”

Vinnette Carroll, Bernie Hamilton, Barbara Barrie and Robert Earl Jones in One Potato, Two Potato (1964)

It was his television work which brought him to the attention of the film’s producer, who saw the episode he directed of Felony Squad, a half hour show with a lot of action. To hear Peerce reflect on it, the pre-production process of The Incident were like a dream. Used to 3 to 6 day shoots on TV, he was given more than a month to film The Incident on budget of $700,000 ($500,000 more than his first film). He hired cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld (a master of black and white cinematography) and went about casting actors from all schools of acting. To utilize this variety in the ensemble, he had each “pair of actors” come in together during a luxurious week of rehearsals during the week of rehearsals for improvisation sessions. Tony and Martin, tasked with provoking the other actors, did one improvisation which got out of hand quickly:

I told them to improvise with the actor who I eventually hired to play the cab driver. One of them ran across the room and when he reached into his pocket, came out with nothing but mimed “here” to give them some money. And Tony or Marty slapped his hand against a table. And the other one had a plastic knife and by the time I walked over to them, they had this actor against the wall, driving this plastic knife into his chest. We had to hire him for the movie that day.

After a week of rehearsals, Peerce brought all the actors together for one large improvisation session, to test not only how the actors would work together…but if the fear and anxiety would come through in their performances

We did a big group improvisation. We laid out chairs like the subway car, and just let them go. Because they needed to understand the fear that comes with not knowing what to expect from these strangers. If it didn’t work, the film wouldn’t have worked. Tony and Marty were very nervous before starting, because they knew what they were going to have to do their fellow actors. Before we started the improv, Marty and Tony asked me to tell them we’re really nice guys. And I said, they know you’re nice guys, they know you’re just acting, and they know what you’re going to have to do. And when everyone sat down, Tony and Marty started to walk up and down the subway car. And Tony started working on Brock and within two minutes, Brock was in a rage. And when he stood up and grabbed his arm, you could just feel the electricity in the room. And when we stopped the improv, I gave him a hug. I knew at that moment it was going to work.

Ruby Dee and Martin Sheen in The Incident (1967)

While 90 percent of the film takes place on in a single location, the moments before each character walks on the train were filmed on locations, including some gorilla filming at the New York MTA stations. While on location in the Bronx the first week, Peerce was called to come down to the producer’s office. Financing had fallen threw and checks to the cast and crew were starting to bounce. They had just one week of footage and never filmed the subway scenes. But the producers knew 20th Century Fox had expressed interest in the property and brought the footage to David Brown. Interested Peerce was sent with a cut of the footage to present the film to Richard Zanuck, who agreed to finance the film that day. Rather than a $700,000 budget, they would have an $850,000 budget and schedule of 60 days to shoot the film. Pierce had convinced the actors not to take other jobs while waiting to go back into production, and they were all back at work within a month of shutting down.

It was to Fox’s credit that they didn’t ask Peerce to compromise on the film’s harsh esthetic or narrative structure. Hirschfeld and Peerce had done color tests but decided the film would only work with sterile, black and white photography. And there were never discussions of changing the film’s disheartening ending. Only the producers asked for an alteration, adding a pop song to the ending they thought could market the film. The song doesn’t work and when aired on television has occasionally been replaced with instrumental music. They also were happy with the very uncommercial cast of character actors. Only Ed McMahon was a popular star, and he wasn’t known as an actor but as a personality. Peerce says regardless of “stunt casting” McMahon gave an excellent performance and fit the role of mild-mannered husband and father perfectly.

Thelma Ritter also had something of a name as a popular character actor in films, and had never done any improvisation before, and feared being out of her element with students of Stella Adler and the Actors Studio. One of the scenes has Jack Gilford attempt to call for help, and the day of the large rehearsal, Ritter jumped up and hit Tony to defend Gilford. It surprised everyone and was added to the film. When asked by Peerce why she’d done that she said “I was so scared, but I just knew I had to protect Jack. I kind of like this improvisation.”

What came out of these improvisations which changed the film from the television program was a layer of social commentaries, allowing the film to feel like something of a microcosm of New York (and the United States at large). It was the primary reason to show the actors getting on the train at specific spots in the city, rather than having them on the train from the beginning. As the tension builds, vulnerabilities and splinters in relationships become more and more noticeable (particularly in the marriages) and the gender dynamics take on particular resonance. The film depicted moments of homeless abuse, homophobia, racism, sexual assault, and ultimately, violence. Today, the similarities to a film like Spike Lee’s do the right thing or dystopian fictions like Snowpiercer and Hi-Rise are comparable to what was accomplished in The Incident.

Robert Bannard and Beau Bridges in The Incident (1967)

It is Bridges’s character who finally takes physical action against the thugs, after observing a threat to McMahon’s child, despite being the character with the least physical ability to take action, on leave due to a broken arm in a cast, and the film’s tourist visiting his New York friend. Despite taking the thugs down, he appears to suffer a near fatal stab wound, and regardless of what’s been witnessed, none of the other passengers come to his aid or defense. Instead Peerce added one more comment on racial tension; when cops finally arrive, they immediately go after Brock Peters’s character. It was the film’s final improvisation, and Peerce added it in just before filming the scene:

Peters asked how I would finish his character, he felt the experience between Tony and himself wasn’t over. I came in the next morning and told him, I think when the cops come on the car they’ll go after you. Cops would go right for the black guy. And Brock thought it was crazy and we wouldn’t get away with that. But as we were having the conversation, one of the extras playing a detective came on the car, walked the car and told Brock without any prompting, “I’m going to get you.” 

The scene made a huge impression when played in largely mix race audiences, such as a theater in Times Square where the reaction was so loud, Peerce could hear a low rumbling outside the theater. But the film didn’t play as well for art house audiences, having received a bad review from Bosley Crowley in the New York Times. Crowley notoriously despised violent films and not only gave The Incident a bad review, but also hated Bonnie & Clyde the same year. The impact of the review was devastating for the film in New York assumed to be an “art house film.”

A reason the film has largely been lost, despite critical acclaim and strong audience turn out, was the competition the film had to contend with in 1967 and 1968. Peters, Bridges, and Musante were all considered dark horses in the Oscar race by 20th Century Fox, which led them to release the film for one week in Los Angeles. They received high praise and did remarkably well for that week. But when the film was re-released in 68, they had no reviews to remind audiences or Oscar nominations. It would have been a difficult year for the small film to break through, competing with The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, In the Heat of the Night, Cool Hand Luke, In Cold Blood, Dirty Dozen, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

Compared to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Incident expresses a disturbingly different view of modern America. The film was praised and criticized for its nihilistic perspective, a fact Peerce agrees with but says was completely intentional. “That was America then, and it’s the undercurrent of what we have now. Hopefully in another generation things will be different. But now, look at what’s going on in the United States. It was an accurate depiction and unfortunately is still all too true.”

Jack Klugman and Ali McGraw in Goodbye Columbus (1969)

One of the fans of the film was producer Stanley Jaffe. He loved the movie and wanted a him to direct a film based on the Philip Roth novella, Goodbye Columbus. Peerce loved Roth, being a Jewish kid from Bronx himself, and the film was “an opportunity to express myself in a non-angry way.” Of course, the film is still infused with a dark, satirical edge about the American class system and contemporary sexual politics. But Peerce hid his satire behind the allusion of a romantic comedy. Even today, Peerce knows the darkness was well hidden, saying “you can’t say what the studio was thinking. The studio might have seen it as a light comedy, but I certainly didn’t. And they never asked us to change the ending of the film so they’d end up together. Bob Evans and Peter Bart allowed us to make the film we wanted to.”

While The Incident’s violent and disturbing depictions of a violent society raised the ire of some, Goodbye Columbus nearly received an X rating for its depiction of sexuality. “We had a meeting with the head of the MPAA, who said I know what they’re doing, you know what they’re doing when she’s sitting on him. She’s fondling his genitals. And because you project a film at a certain frame ratio, we pulled the frame back and showed that she was tickling him under his arms. The censor got so angry with us he left the room. We got embarrassed listening to what was just in his mind. The film would have been a PG rating today.”

And unlike The Incident, Peerce’s social commentary in Goodbye Columbus rubbed many the wrong way, with several audiences labeling him an anti-Semite or self-hating Jew for depicting a Jewish family as social climbers. Peerce, raised in a proud Jewish family, was shocked by the claims believing the family’s concern of social status was representative of many middle class families, regardless of their race and ethnicity. This family just “happened to be” Jewish. “It was about the rising middle class, whether their Jewish or not, who are desperately trying to become a part of the upper class.”

Goodbye Columbus (1969)

But the film did well at the box-office, and Ali McGraw asked him to take on her next project, Love Story…a script he disliked considerably and turned down. The film ultimately name Arthur Hiller a rich man, and Peerce went about “desperately working towards destroying my career.” He followed up Goodbye Columbus with what he calls his angriest film about violence, The Sporting Club, a film about privileged upper-middle class men purging their tensions through acts of violence. Essentially lost to the ages, the film was panned for its cynical views of masculinity and an inherently violent culture. Ironically, having seen the film in an archive, it feels very much like a film which would be considered ahead of its time alongside movies like American Psycho, Fight Club, Riot Club, and Wolf of Wall Street.

Peerce regularly moved between the angry satires (The Incident, Sporting Clubs, Ash Wednesday, and Two-Minute Warning) and his compassionate human tragedies (One Potato, two Potato, A Separate Peace, The Other Side of the Mountain), with Goodbye Columbus existing somewhere in the middle. A Separate Peace is a film Peerce is still proud of, an intimate coming of age story about living with guilt and regret in a time of war (without ever showing the war). Likewise, The Other Side of the Mountain was his own grand romance, and like Love Story did tremendous business (he calls it the film which bought his house). Both these films made a concerted effort not to confuse sincerity with schmaltz (although even Peerce admits The Other Side of the Mountain doesn’t always achieve these goals).

Wanting to avoid the problems he saw in modern day studio filmmaking remained a concern throughout Peerce’s career. When offered Two-Minute Warning, he was expected to make a film in the vein of a modern, all-star disaster film (like Towering Inferno or Poseidon Adventure) which relished violent spectacle and featured an all-star cast. He did cast well-known actors in the films such as Jack Klugman (from Goodbye Columbus), Marilyn Hassett (Other Side of the Mountain and Peerce’s then wife), Martin Balsam, David Jenssen, Walter Pidgeon, Gena Rowlands, Charlton Heston, John Cassavetes, and Beau Bridges, who he worked with on 5 films.

Beau Bridges in Two-Minute Warning (1976)

But Peerce also wanted to take the genre in a different direction, making a procedural film about what could happen if an active shooter were in a massive crowd (in this film, at a populated football stadium). The results Peerce conceived were not only horrific violence due to the shooting, but potential stampedes caused by sheer, mass panic. Years after the assassinations of several national leaders and rising fear of a growing gun culture.

Like The Incident, Two-Minute Warning is a remarkable technical achievement linked to timely social commentary. The difference being the scope of Two-Minute Warning was so much larger. Pierce had to direct 500 extras at a time (and managed to have no serious injuries during filming). Peerce was criticized for his decision not to explore the reasoning the shooter and instead singularly focused on the lives of the victims in the hour leading up to them being gunned down (or trampled). The criticism still bother Peerce, explaining “critics said, how can you make a movie about a shooter and never say why he did it. But that was why I made it. The whole point is the horror we live in every day is the unknown person who commits an act of violence.” The idea was so disturbing NBC (which had TV rights) demanded a TV version add footage framing the shooter as a member of a jewelry heist…something Peerce refused to be part of and didn’t direct.

Crowd scene in Two-Minute Warning (1976)

Even in the films where Peerce showed violence, he never did so in a stylized or amusing way; it was always to criticize our violent culture. He was restrain in showing to be painful and ugly. Both The Incident and Two-Minute Warning were criticized as too violent, although The Incident only shows 17 seconds of a violent act, while all the rest is implied. Pierce knows violence in his films can still be disturbing to audiences, which is his intentional, saying “There’s very little violence in my movies compared to action movies, including those made then. But the violence I depicted was more disturbing than those other films. I’m personally more upset about violence which is meaningless in a film. Violence is part of the American life, it’s frightening and it’s there all the time.”

With the recent reassessment of some of Peerce’s work, modern audience not only have the opportunity to see the angry, cynical side of the 60s and 70s that even New Hollywood rarely depicted, but consider their own connection to violence in modern society by comparison. In audiences raised in a post-Tarantino world, Peerce knows that when he shows films like The Incident or Two-Minute Warning to young audiences ”the violence doesn’t appall modern audiences, but the subject matter still does.” Showing The Incident to modern audiences, he knows from experience at revivals and classrooms that the film demands audiences recovery from the “visceral effect” the film’s had on them. Audiences at the Film Forum will have the first chance to see the film as part of the 50th Anniversary screening, and process their emotional response with a Q&A led by Peerce.

Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, websitelesleycoffin.com)

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