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The Bedford Incident

The Bedford Incident
Columbia TriStar
1965 / B&W / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 102 min. / Street Date September 23, 2003 / 24.95
Starring Richard Widmark, Sidney Poitier, James MacArthur, Martin Balsam, Wally Cox, Eric Portman
Cinematography Gilbert Taylor
Art Direction Lionel Couch, Arthur Lawson
Film Editor John Jympson
Original Music Gerard Schurmann
Written by James Poe from a novel by Mark Rascovitch
Produced by James B. Harris, Richard Widmark
Directed by James B. Harris

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

James B. Harris was the producer/partner of all of Stanley Kubrick's early hits. In 1964, Kubrick scored at Columbia with Dr. Strangelove; when Fail-Safe raised tempers behind the scenes, the studio barely escaped the snafu of having two practically identical movies hit in the same year. Harris proved he was quite a directing talent with this doomsday follow-up to Strangelove: a tense tale of warlike anti-sub activity being waged during peacetime. Richard Widmark produced as well as stars in a role perfectly suited to his nervous intensity. And swiftly rising star Sidney Poitier added to his varied list of solid roles.


The USS Bedford patrols the Denmark Strait, shadowing a Russian submarine. Captain Finlander (Richard Widmark) is obsessed with winning his little bit of the Cold War by outsmarting and humiliating his foe. He's got an ex-German submariner (Eric Portman) for advice and a crew he keeps on the edge of their nerves, including green Ensign Ralston (James MacArthur). New to the ship are a Navy reserve doctor, Potter (Martin Balsam) and a pushy investigative reporter (Sidney Poitier), and neither are eager to witness Finlander's nervy provocations during peacetime - the submarine he's harassing is armed with nuclear torpedoes.

Everyone who's seen The Bedford Incident should be sworn to secrecy. This is one suspense movie that relies so much on its surprising ending, it tends to fall apart if spoiled.

James Poe's crackling script deftly handles the exposition of the operation of a sub-chaser, while providing sharp roles for all of the leads. Widmark gets to be a hard-nosed martinet with an obsession that borders on a mania, yet he's operationally sane at all times. Poitier is the thorn in Widmark's side, a reporter eager to expose the captain as a loose cannon that doesn't know it's peacetime. And Martin Balsam is an easygoing ship's doctor frustrated by Widmark's inflexible command.

The drama points to Widmark's Captain Finlander as the problem, mostly by showing the effect his command has on the other characters. By keeping his crew on the razor's edge at all times, he risks their malfunctioning under pressure. The pressure he puts on Ensign Ralston makes the young man utterly unreliable. Nerdy sonar expert Wally Cox (in a nice bit of reverse casting, like Dom DeLuise in Fail-Safe) cracks up without warning. Balsam's Potter explodes at Finlander on the bridge, further complicating the situation. And Poitier is driven to needle Findlander, which just makes his behavior worse.

Strangely enough, we don't really begin to fear Finlander (we like Widmark's patented Kiss of Death laugh) until Eric Portman, the ex-U Boat captain, starts to get worried. Portman's an unsung treasure of an English actor, often relegated to villain parts, but always good. He's especially terrific in Powell and Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale.

The Bedford Incident keeps us on guard at all times. The realism of the ship-at-sea setting is let down by the too-obvious miniatures but helped immensely by the documentary tone of the direction and photography on the decks. Again, the scripted exchanges between the leads, especially the cat-and-mouse verbal duels between Poitier and Widmark during their 'friendly interviews', are so good that we accept the intelligence of the entire show.

And it is smart, especially compared to the entertaining but dumber Hunt for Red October, which is still the front-runner in the stakes for best sub thriller. I haven't met a war movie lover, hawk or dove, who wasn't impressed by this one: the peaceniks can laud it as anti-war, and the military fans can read it as an excellent example of misjudged Naval leadership gone really wrong. At one point Martin Balsam is reading a book called Naval Command, Principles and Problems. Widmark loaned it to him; it's a shame the Captain didn't read it himself.

In a small but visible bit in this English production is Canadian Donald Sutherland. It's one of his very first screen roles.

Columbia TriStar's DVD of The Bedford Incident is an excellent enhanced transfer from an okay source. The picture is always good, but a bit dirtier than expected, especially with white spots. There's nothing to complain about with the widescreen framing, however, as the shots of the miniature boat that play reasonably well here, have a tendency to look like toys in a bathtub when the full frame is opened up for cable TV showings.

There are trailers for Bedford (not very good), Fail-Safe (excellent), and a couple of other Columbia pix, but no extras.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Bedford Incident rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Trailers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 18, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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