Friday, January 16, 2009

A Night with Dick and Sid

The final 10 minutes of “The Bedford Incident” (1965) are incredibly tense-filled. The rest of the movie is pretty darn good too.

Beautifully filmed in crisp widescreen black and white, “The Bedford Incident” is set on the U.S.S. Bedford, a destroyer operating in the North Atlantic around Greenland and Denmark. The ship is on patrol keeping an eye on Russian submarine activity. Captain Finlander (Richard Widmark) is a superb commander but very harsh on his men, particularly a young Ensign (James MacArthur), who he takes to task at the slightest error. A reporter (Sidney Poitier) is on hand to do a story on the ship and its captain, mainly because of an incident Finlander experienced in Cuban waters – an incident that could have blown up into something bigger and prevented him from being named Admiral.

When a Russian sub is detected as sneaking out of international waters into Greenland waters, Finlander is ecstatic. He has the Russians where he wants them. Increasingly frustrated that his orders are to only observe the submarine and not take action, Finlander becomes increasingly agitated. Agitated not in a Captain Quegg style, but more along the lines of a simmering volcano waiting to erupt at any moment. All the while Poitier is recording and photographing everything.

In addition to turning in one of his best performances, Widmark also co-produced the film. I believe I read where it was a personal favorite of his, and I can see why. This is a full-blooded characterization, with his cool Navy commander growing more and more anxious as the movie progresses. As harsh as he is to his Ensign, he does have the respect of his men and seems to enjoy his sonar man Queffle, played by the great Wally Cox.

I don’t want to say more for those that haven’t seen it, as this is a beautifully written and directed (James B. Hill) movie. Cox has a good breakdown scene, as does Martin Balsam as the ship’s doctor who doesn’t feel he’s getting the respect he deserves. Eric Portmann is also memorable as a former U-Boat commander who is on the Bedford as an observer who sees what is happening to Finlander before anyone else.

The film is almost documentary-like in its look at life on a destroyer, and interest is kept at full alert throughout. Perhaps one can fault the use of miniatures in some scenes but I happen to like miniatures so that didn’t bother me.

This is an exceptional movie and if I don’t sound too excited about it, it’s because “The Bedford Incident” is one of those movies that the least you know about it the better. So I will say no more, but give it a highly recommended three-and-a-half stars.

This was actually the first movie I watched last night starring Widmark and Poitier, the second being Poitier’s film debut “No Way Out” (1950), an unflinching look at race relations that remains uncomfortably powerful today.

Widmark and Poitier became great friends after starring in “No Way Out” and Poitier always remembered Widmark’s kindness to him during shooting. Widmark was constantly apologizing to Poitier in between filming as Widmark, playing a hate-filled racist, utters every derogatory racial comment in the book to Poitier, including the n-word half a dozen times. Poitier kept reassuring Widmark he understood, that Widmark was only playing a character, but Widmark was beside himself at having to utter such foul language.

Despite today’s permissive use of language in films, you probably couldn’t get away with the liberal use of the n-word that “No Way Out” provides. “Gran Torino” (2008) gives us a character who is incredibly racist but he doesn’t use the n-word when dealing with a gang of African-Americans. Is this because director Eastwood realized using the word would lessen sympathy for his Walt Kowalski character?

Back to “No Way Out”. Widmark plays Ray Biddle, shot in an attempted robbery with his brother. They are taken to the prison ward of the hospital where they are treated by Dr. Brooks, an intern (Poitier). When Widmark’s brother dies, he blames Brooks, inciting the neighborhood to start a race riot.

It’s a strong movie and uncomfortable to watch today. Widmark is excellent as always, though his final scenes are a little too pat. Linda Darnell is excellent as Widmark’s sister-in-law who hates the Biddles and inadvertently starts the race riot in motion.

“No Way Out” was written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz the same year he wrote and directed “All About Eve.” I don’t know which one came first but if Mankiewicz was pre-occupied with Eve it’s possible he didn’t give his all to “No Way Out.” But since “All About Eve” is one of the wittiest movies ever made, putting “No Way Out” on the sacrificial altar is acceptable. But he didn’t slack off. “No Way Out” still holds up well today.

Rating for “No Way Out”: Three stars.

If there were more hours in the day I would have had a triple feature with “The Long Ships” (1964), the gloriously silly adventure flick with Widmark as a Viking and Poitier as a Moor, both on a quest for a legendary Golden Bell. It’s one of Widmark’s worst performances, if not the worst, but there’s no denying its great fun to watch.

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