“The Bedford Incident” is a sublime, intricate Cold War thriller that doesn’t have to rely on special effects (they’re good for the day, but not the focus of the film) or action in a military setting. It is pure drama with subplots. Here is an exceptional film by a director who knows how to utilize the talent at his disposal and manages to get the best out of a top-shelf screenplay. With its A-list cast and purposeful storytelling, you’d be hard-pressed to find better than “The Bedford Incident.”
‘THE BEDFORD INCIDENT’
(1965; 102 minutes; rated ‘approved;’ directed by James B. Harris; starring Richard Widmark, Sidney Poitier and James MacArthur)
THE COLD WAR IS THE SETTING FOR CHILLING DRAMA
(NOTE: I first expanded this review on Aug. 19, 2014, and then again on March 10, 2016. I updated links, cleaned up some typos and added some opinion and trivia.)
I’m the first (no kidding) to admit I’m not a fan of black-and-white films. Even the Humphrey Bogart classic “The Caine Mutiny” is in color from 1954, but “The Bedford Incident” in 1965 is an exceptional thriller in B&W (it even outdoes 1962’s “The Longest Day” and is on the same level of excellence as 1953’s “Stalag 17’” – and that one won an Oscar and had two nominations). “The Bedford Incident” offers an outstanding cast that uses the Cold War to segue from World War II to a modern-day apocalypse that doesn’t happen in real life.
One key virtue of “The Bedford Incident” is that the filmmakers – especially director James B. Harris – had patience. Too many times a filmmaker will rush to make a point. “The Bedford Incident” takes its time and you’re never lost in what’s a very intricate plot. However, you need to pay attention, since, unlike some thrillers (take “True Lies” from the espionage genre – click here for my review), there is nuance that isn’t telegraphed.
Let’s take a look at the high points in the cast:
Richard Widmark, an actor with a bunch of roles of stoic characters from 1947 into the early 1990s, is the psychotic no-holds barred U.S. Navy commander “Capt. Eric Finlander” chasing a Russian submarine in the chilly waters of the north-north Atlantic. It comes down to us versus the bad guys with nuclear-tipped warheads.
Widmark, whose character is being profiled by magazine writing superstar “Ben Munsford” played by Sidney Poitier, has all his faults exposed as the film unfolds. His sidekick, a former World War II U-boat commander now on the winning side, follows him into folly and fate. The captain runs a tight ship: no sailor dares report for sick-call; the officers stay in the Navy to be on the ship despite lucrative private sector offers; and just about everyone is gung-ho to the breaking point.
Widmark just oozes perfection in this role. His work makes you believe he is a U.S. Navy officer (albeit a bit psycho) with his commanding presence and self-assured authority. Widmark doesn’t waste any talent here and he doesn’t mail in even a moment. Widmark was also in “Rollercoaster” (click here for my review), “Kiss of Death” (nominated for an Oscar for this one) and “Judgment at Nuremberg.”
Likewise, Poitier delivers a wonderful performance as he tries to uncover the real man behind Widmark’s military façade. Poitier conveys his character’s insightfulness and intelligence and it is as good a role has he’s ever accomplished. He was also in “To Sir, With Love,” “Sneakers” with Robert Redford (click here to read my review), the little-remembered “Little Nikita” with River Phoenix and he won an Oscar for Best Actor in “Lilies of the Field.”
The best supporting cast role is from James MacArthur, who plays “Ensign Ralston,” who is a fidgety as a Chihuahua-on-a-freeway junior officer trying to be perfect for his perfectionist captain. MacArthur, who did “The Bedford Incident” before his signature “Hawaii Five-O” turn, also did “Hang ‘Em High” with Clint Eastwood as well as the war classic “Battle of the Bulge” (click here for my review) and even did an episode of TV’s “The Love Boat” (yea!) — click here for my review of that wonderfully schlocky series.
Other supporting cast members include:
- Martin Balsam plays the insightful new medical officer “Lt. Cmdr. Chester Potter.” Balsam plays victim to Widmark’s bully with ease and the younger actors on the set could have learned a lesson from his work here. Balsam was also in “12 Angry Men,” “Psycho” and “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (click here for my review).
- TV and film veteran Wally Cox, as a stressed-out sonar operator “Seaman Merlin Queffle,” uses his high-pitched voice to perfection here and it isn’t one of his whiny roles as the captain depends on him to the breaking point. Cox was also in “The Barefoot Executive” and a string of TV roles. He died in 1973 at the age of 48 of a heart attack.
- Eric Portman is solid as “Commodore Wolfgang Schrepke,” a former World War II U-boat captain who advises Widmark on submarine tactics. He was also in “The Colditz Story.”
Oh, yes, I forgot to mention until now that the title of the film is because the U.S. ship is the “Bedford.” Click here to read Wiki’s detailed entry about the plot.
The film’s “approved” rating comes from, according to an Internet source, “Under the Hays Code, films were simply approved or disapproved based on whether they were deemed ‘moral’ or ‘immoral.’”
“The Bedford Incident” is an exceptional motion picture. Book it, Dan-O!
For 1965, I couldn’t find in a short internet search where “The Bedford Incident” ranked with ticket sales. The No. 1 film was the incomparable “The Sound of Music” with $163.2 million and “Doctor Zhivago” was second with $111.7 million. The No. 3 film was the legendary 007 classic “Thunderball” with $63.5 million (click here for my review). Two films from the same year that I’ve also enjoyed immensely are the delightful comedy “Dear Brigitte” (click here for my review) and the World War II classic “Battle of the Bulge” (click here for my review).
Trivia notes from IMDb.com:
- Directly from IMDb.com: “Although by this point Sidney Poitier had been making films for 15 years, this was the first film he made in which his race was neither mentioned nor relevant.”
- “Woody Allen was offered the part of “Seaman Merlin Queffle” (ultimately played by Cox) but turned it down.” Just one look at the two actors will show why Cox was cast in a role where the director knew exactly the kind of physical presence and personality the role needed.
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “Second of three movies which Sidney Poitier made with Richard Widmark, the other two being ‘No Way Out’ in 1951, and ‘The Long Ships’ the following year.”
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