A relentless pursuit to the breaking point!
The Bedford Incident is the granddaddy of all Cold War paranoia war movies. It is a taut and melodramatic examination of the pitfalls of naval ships playing cat-and-mouse with one another, armed with really big guns. Despite its age, The Bedford Incident holds up well today, but the drama lags massively and ultimately sinks this naval picture.
Facts of the Case
At the height of the Cold War, tensions are high-strung, nerves are jangled, and the world waits in fear as international powers silently struggle with one another. The Bedford, a NATO battleship armed to the teeth, is on patrol in the North Atlantic when it receives two guests via helicopter—one, a replacement doctor, Lt. Cmd. Potter (Martin Balsam), is an experienced naval reserve doctor eager to get back into the action. The second, a civilian, is a photographer and journalistic reporter named Ben Munceford (Sidney Poitier). He is there to take photos of The Bedford in action, and interview its captain, Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark).
Finander is a respected, but notoriously fiery and tough commander. He keeps his ship on high alert at all times, and ruthlessly dogs his enemy. Reference is made to an incident in Cuba, where he performed with ruthless efficiency raising a Russian sub, but despite this amazing accolade, he was noticeably passed over for a promotion. Munceford, smelling blood, begins to dig into The Bedford, looking for a story.
Then, on a routine patrol, The Bedford finds a Russian submarine violating international waters. Finlander springs into action. He takes the ship into iceberg water, trying to dog this phantom submarine, keeping his crew on 24-hour shifts without mercy. Soon, he is utterly consumed with this mission, obsessed with catching a submarine that he can neither locate nor find.
When NATO signals The Bedford to simply wait, and pursue the submarine no further, Finlander is livid. Both Munceford and Potter soon realize that Finlander has something to prove. He rules The Bedford with an iron fist, and he will not tolerate dissent. As the captain takes the ship farther and farther into the torrential waters, farther and farther into international waters, beyond all logic, beyond all common sense, they become desperate to stop this captain, who seems out of control, and hell-bent on starting a war.
Finlander's obsession with pushing the limits of rationality is a scathing commentary on a Cold War culture, which, interestingly, came from within the Cold War itself. Filmed in 1965, The Bedford Incident was created when international tension was real, the stress and drama was real. The film is worthy of admiration for having such a critical and dramatic view of Cold War politics from within the Cold War itself.
The film also features one Donald Sutherland, in one of his first cinematic roles, cast as a lab technician whose job involves scouring the water for garbage, collecting it, and analyzing its contents to determine if/when the Russians left it behind.
It never occurred to be that a naval boat would be stocked with lab technicians analyzing bits of red cabbage and potato peelings, determining how long the garbage has been floating in the water. Using this information, the commander could help pinpoint the movement and location of enemy submarines.
Pretty cool, if you ask me.
There is a lot that is cool about The Bedford Incident, to be honest. The acting is top-rate; Widmark takes the role of Finlander to a tense and brutal level. His resolve stays steady, his temper stays steady—he is firmly in command, even as he slowly comes unraveled. The performances are all well done—Poitier plays Munceford as brazen, cocky, and even slightly slimy; he is a photojournalist with a job to do, at any cost, and he is not afraid to go looking for the dirt.
And the film's climactic finale is a spectacle to behold. It remains a marvel of dramatic action to this day, and has to be one of the most daring and brilliantly executed endings for a film ever recorded. But, in the 1960s—this must have been a seriously astonishing thing to behold. It makes me wish I were thirty years older.
The problem, though, with The Bedford Incident, is the pacing. The plot—dogging a Russian submarine through icy waters seems thrilling enough, but essentially, the only thing the ship can do is sit, and wait. Sit, and wait; sit, and wait. The submarine only has enough air for 24 hours, and they must simply wait it out, without even knowing if the submarine is indeed below them, or has somehow escaped through their fingers. And, after 24 hours, if the submarine fails to surface, then indeed, it is gone forever—there would be no hope of tracking it and giving pursuit after so long a delay.
So, a lot of the movie is spent merely sitting, and waiting. This, an effective dramatic device on the short-term, soon becomes rather irritating. Make no mistake; this is a melodramatic thriller—the action takes place between the interplay between captain and doctor, between captain and journalist, between captain and crew. There are no action-packed chases, no high-speed pursuits through the black waters, no guns, nothing of the sort.
And while the ultimate confrontation between captain and crew is tense and thrilling, and the ultimate resolution of the submarine chase is indeed harrowing and exciting, the experience can be soured by having to sit around for an hour and a half, waiting for something good to happen.
This is not a young film, and all things considered, the transfer is quite adequate. Presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer, The Bedford Incident was shot in black and white, with heavy emphasis on blacks and grays, everything in tones of gunmetal. Shadows fall aggressively across faces, and the tone of the film is dull and dark. Scratches and dust dirt the transfer aggressively, but the film still manages to come across quite pleasantly, despite the obvious physical defects of the source material. It is an old film—a certain level of damage can be expected (he says, feeling guilty, cradling his Citizen Kane DVD lovingly), but there is nothing dramatically wrong with the transfer here.
Of course, it would be nice to see millions of dollars spent to restore every old film during its transition to DVD, but sadly, this is not to be. The transfer is not a fantastic thing to behold—in fact, the more you watch it, the more spots and marks, the more lines and scratches one observes—but it is certainly an acceptable transfer, considering the material. Not every DVD presentation can be a Citizen Kane, after all. And, at the very least, the transfer on this DVD, a competent anamorphic transfer, should last for many, many years to come.
The sound, a Dolby Digital Mono track, has been presented quite nicely. The sonar pings echo effectively, the dialogue is always audible and clear. Atmospheric and environmental noises plague the track, but these are native to the original recording, and cannot be avoided. A minimalist soundtrack complements the melodramatic tension quite well, with orchestra hits sounding accordingly during tense moments.
A few trailers are included on the film, but there are no major extras to speak of, which is a shame. This DVD could use a little something extra.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Dull, dull, dull, and dull. Have I mentioned dull?
This is a movie you fall the heck asleep while watching, and then wake up at the very end with the sensation that you really didn't miss anything. The Bedford Incident's attempt at tension building is the equivalent of taking a kettle of water, and leaving it in the sun to boil. If action-packed thrillers are your MO, then stay away from this film.
The Bedford Incident is aptly titled—watching it feels like an incident instead of an experience. The film's major problem is its lack of motivation. The premise takes too long to develop, the plot feels stiff and motionless, and the momentum of the film is terrible, despite having a great plot and solid acting. With all the significant action happening in the last five minutes of the movie, just getting there can be an exhausting procedure.
But if you have had your cup of coffee, and are raptly interested in subtle, slow-moving psychological melodramas, then The Bedford Incident is the prescription for your fever. Plus, some cowbell to boot!
Okay, no cowbell.
Worth seeing once, The Bedford Incident is a neat film with ambitious ideas. Its Cold War ideology may be slightly outdated, but the film is still chilling in its execution—at least, in the last fifteen minutes. The DVD presentation is a nice one, and while the film itself can be dull, it is interesting to see how the naval picture, as a genre, has progresses through the years.
Heck, you could even make an evening out of it. You could start with In Which We Serve, take in The Bedford Incident, work your way up to Das Boot, and then end it off with The Hunt For Red October—or, if you were feeling particularly saucy, even Crimson Tide.
I'll bring the popcorn—you bring the beer. Case dismissed.
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