The Bedford Incident
If James B. Harris is known at all it isn’t as a director but as Stanley Kubrick’s producer on The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957) and Lolita (1962). But he was and is a director and a pretty good one too. The first film he directed was The Bedford Incident (1965), a cold war drama that came and went so quickly that hardly anyone knew that it even existed. The critics of the day generally dismissed it as a sort of “too little, too late” event. It came out a year or so after Kubrick’s Dr.Strangelove (1964) and Lumet’s Fail Safe (1964) and was looked upon as an “also ran” in the cinema of paranoia sweepstakes. Now it occasionally shows up on cable but I’ve never seen it on network TV. In fact I’ve never even seen it listed. In spite of this it’s quite a nifty little cinematic think piece that deserves a second look if you’ve seen it or a first if you haven’t.
The story is about the situation on The Bedford, a US Destroyer outfitted with the latest technology (circa 1965) for tracking down supposedly disguised Russian spy ships in neutral waters just to make sure that they know we’re keeping an eye on them. The captain of the ship is one Eric Finlander, a strictly by- the- book career officer whose achievements were exemplary but who is nevertheless mysteriously kept at a distance by Navy administration. The role is played by Richard Widmark and it is one of his best. He is cold, steely, authoritative, and sometimes even frightening. Then just when we think we’ve got a fix on him he will flash a smile and suddenly appear warm and human.
“Yeah, it’s a lot of hard work being a mean bastard.” He says to his first officer, who is also his confidant, who then replies: “But Captain, sometimes I can’t help but admire how effortlessly you do it. Almost as though it came natural.”
The narrative, which is not very expansive, depicts a few days on The Bedford as they track down and essentially trap an unseen spy submarine violating territorial waters somewhere around Greenland. The focus here is on the work ethic of a few men on the ship as they play a deadly game of “cat and mouse” fueled by the Captain’s obsession with the phantom sub…“I keep them interested in the hunt.” He says, explaining how he keeps his men motivated. His whole philosophy is summed up in another line of dialogue delivered late in the film at a moment when he is being urged to give up his pursuit because the suspect sub is in international waters.
“Look, if I catch a man robbing my house and he makes a break for it, do I let him go just because he makes it to the sidewalk?” …Finlander, like Quint in Jaws (1975) later on, is cut from the same fabric as Melville’s Ahab in Moby Dick but both the screenwriter James Poe and Mark Rascovich from whose novel the film was adapted were able to make him individual enough that he transcends becoming a stereotype.
We see most of it from a dual perspective. Those of a Life Magazine reporter/photographer assigned to the ship for a story, portrayed by Sidney Poitier and the newly assigned ship physician played by Martin Balsam (1919-1996). Poitier’s character Burt Munceford is more of a device than a truly etched character. He is there to represent our or the civilian’s point of view. The role is somewhat thankless because Munceford is positioned mostly to ask questions and give us some back story on Finlander. But Poitier handles the part with grace and some savvy as well. At the time he got some flak from the critics for being too off handed and flip. But looking at it closely the performance serves the narrative as a dramatic alternative to Finlander’s intensity.
A side note here. Poitier and Widmark were close friends. It began when they appeared together in Poitier’s first film role, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s race drama No Way Out (1950). At the time of The Bedford Incident Poitier was a big box office name and it was said that he took the role as a favor to his friend who was also producing the film. Later on Widmark returned the favor by appearing in the Poitier directed Hanky Panky (1982).
Balsam’s doctor gives us the perspective of a career Navy officer who does or wants to do his job on the ship without obsessing over it…The recently deceased James MacArthur (1937-2010) who did most of his acting on the TV series Hawaii Five-O gives what is perhaps the strongest performance of his film career as Ensign Ralston, a young over eager officer who nervously wants to please the captain as best he can. Marlon Brando’s best friend Wally Cox (1924-1973) also weighs in with a good performance as well. But the top honors go to Widmark who was a highly underrated actor throughout his career. He was praised mostly for the parts where he played the villain but his terrific performances in films like Time Limit-1957 (which he also produced) and Judgment at Nuremburg (1961) were generally overlooked. In The Bedford Incident he has what I consider his last great role although his career went on for another 40 years. It was really the perfect matching of actor and part and Widmark made the most of it still it went virtually unnoticed by all but a few critics. Nevertheless the performance is there for reassessment and appreciation.
Harris, as director, creates a very good sense of what it feels like to live on a ship for an extended period. The limited access to space, the monotony of looking at the walls or the sea all the time and the boredom of things when you don’t have a specific job to occupy your mind. The claustrophobic sense of it all is nicely conveyed through his direction and through the black and white cinematography of Gilbert Taylor…All in all, The Bedford Incident is a film that didn’t get it’s due the first time around. Unfortunately that happens quite often and that is to be lamented. But through the miracle of DVD’s, Blu Rays, and Streaming we can correct this oversight. This film is a good place to start.