Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Bedford Incident

The Bedford Incident (James B. Harris, 1965) A veritable Bartlett's fills my head after seeing The Bedford Incident.  For instance, the astronaut's description of his job as "98% tedium punctuated by moments of sheer terror," and Elwood P. Dowd's "You can be 'oh-so-smart' or 'oh-so-pleasant'—I recommend "pleasant."  Then, because the story is basically, "Moby Dick in The Cold War," there are all sorts of Melville quotes...and one bad joke: "Cook 'em, Dan-O."

It's that last one that sticks, though.  The Bedford Incident is, basically, a terrible, terrible joke with a possible several mega-tonnage punchline.  And director James B. Harris, who before making this film was Stanley Kubrick's film-making partner, can't have missed the thought as his ex was making an out-and-out comedy of errors out of the nuclear arms race.  

But where that one took to the air, The Bedford Incident plays out at sea in a cat-and-mouse game between a Soviet nuclear sub and a naval destroyer.  In command is Captain Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark, steely with just a touch of baleful twitchiness that goes full-on berzerkoid in an interview), a determined commander who takes enormous pride in the proficiency of his crew, and in the hunt and pursuit of his targets.  As an advisor is a former Nazi U-boat commander Wolfgang Shrepke (Eric Portman), who was responsible for the most tonnage (ours) sunk during the second World War.    Also on board is reporter Ben Munceford (Sidney Poitier), who serves as an exposition conduit and Royal Pain In The Ass.  Among the crew are Martin Balsam as the ship's new doc, James MacArthur as a too-eager ensign, Wally Cox as the sonar bat, and if you're watching early and quickly, there's a young Donald Sutherland as a garbage analyst—garbage being clues to conditions on the enemy boat, and age-analysis gives tracking position and history.

It shows how extreme the measures are on the Bedford, how detail oriented, how precise, how strategic and how puckered the thought processes go into keeping an eye on the enemy.  And once found, Finlander will pursue chasing Soviet subs out of territorial waters, even forcing them to stay underwater until they're desperate for air, provoking confrontation.  When your Nazi adviser tells you he's scared of your methods, it means you might be going so overboard as to pro-actively lower the life-rafts.

If you're immersed at all in pop-culture, you can see elements of Bedford in such disparate strategy plays as "Star Trek" and The Hunt for Red October.  And such gamesmanship is all well and good in limited skirmishes.  But, when the arsenal is nuclear?  Do you really want a cigarette in a room full of gasoline?  

No, and that the game is played despite the mega-stakes makes the movie and its characters seem not just petty, but a little dim for all the talk of brilliance.  The point of hubris is well taken, but the point was better made as an out-and-out black comedy about short-term, selfish interests in the face of global catastrophe.

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