Incidentally: Homosexual Desire Re-constructed as Deviance in The Incident
Larry Peerce's 1967 black and white film The Incident, a portrayal of two violent young men who hold hostage and terrorize a diverse group of New York City subway commuters, appears to operate, on one level at least, as a proselytizing critique: final action is taken against the two men, Joe Ferrone and Artie Connors (played by Tony Musante and Martin Sheen, respectively), ultimately by an Army private, Felix Teflinger (Beau Bridges); the young, mild-mannered private is stabbed in the process of demobilizing Joe and Artie, and, when asked by one of the travelers, Doug McCann (played by Gary Merrill), if anything can be done, responds, "Oh, there's plenty you could do, but I just ain't got time to explain it to you now." With the final words of the apparent hero (who, perhaps to make him more of a martyr, is handicapped by a broken arm; in his own words a 'broken wing') a liberal call is made for solidarity in the face of criminal behavior. The Incident, on this level, might also offer a critique of capitalism, for while the age and ethnic differences between the commuters are vast—the group contains two elder married couples; a lone, single young man; a lone, elder, possibly divorced man or widower; a young Italian man and young Caucasian woman on a date; an elder drunk (who remains unconscious through the entirety); a middle-aged married couple and their daughter; a young African-American married couple; and two army privates (the variety of surnames involved includes McCann, Carmatti, and Goya)—the film seems to stress class differences and (moreover) a dissatisfaction with life in a culture of unequal wealth as the source of the lack of solidarity that takes place: the couplings, prior to entering the subway car, are each given scenes wherein they disagree over issues of money and economic responsibility and power. Each person has therefore entered the car effectively supposedly weakened by capitalism. In this reading Joe and Artie are anti-capitalists (almost heroes themselves) who share commodities completely: like Kathy Acker's 'pirates' they do not work in the traditional sense but rather float from one pillage to the next, (ironically) preying upon capitalist society. In the final minutes of the film, as Felix is carried out by his friend, Private Philip Carmatti (played by Robert Bannard), a view is constructed of Felix looking at the freed hostages; the shot reverses and we see a section of the subway car, presumably through Felix's eyes; the passengers look at the camera/Felix before slowly, one-by-one, lowering their heads in shame.

The Incident can well be categorized as a moralistic analysis of subjectivity and social behavior in a capitalist society, even though the reading remains far too problematic to make the film worthy of further critique. This is so first because it is a young white Army private, someone already possessing dominant hegemonic power, which takes action and forwards the liberal message. Second, in the final instance, Artie does not assist Joe while he battles with Felix and thus destroys any notion that Joe and Artie are about creating an alternative to capitalism that would lend itself better to solidarity and community. Third, the reading reduces Joe and Artie—the two central characters—to thematic, metaphoric devices and thereby overlooks the relationship they share as well as the differing ways they dominate and oppress the other characters, the events of which, after all, constitute “the incident”. And fourth, a reading based on an analysis of capitalism does not in any way account for the tension and interplay between the only unpaired couple in the subway car—two men: Ken Otis (Robert Fields) and Doug McCann. The reading thus seems incomplete insofar as it cannot account for and if fact would have to discard certain important elements of the film, specifically: 1) the homosexual desires expressed either overtly or subtly throughout; 2) if Ken and Doug are grouped together, the fact that one member of two pairs of males (Felix and Doug) each offer the only successful resistance to Joe and Artie during the incident; and 3) two moments of intimacy involving Joe, Felix, and Otis. In an attempt to treat these elements and account for their place in the film, we must add to the power/wealth framework terms that “take off from” class constructs and which reveal a troubling view of desire wherein homosexuality is reinforced into its long-standing separation from family, community, and wealth and re-constructed as both consequence and cause of a world of the lonely, predatory, ineffectual social deviant.

The film begins in a dimly lit pool hall, where Joe and Artie are the only remaining patrons as the hall is closing. When a worker approaches the two and tells them it is closing time, Joe angrily asks, "Where the hell is everybody?" The worker nervously responds, "Everybody's home in bed. That's where you should be." Joe’s next question is: "Yeah? With who?" As he speaks the word 'who' Joe glances at Artie and the two emit laughter. Joe taps the bottom of the bottle from which he has been drinking on the worker's chest in a mock stabbing gesture and grunts before laughing again. The game has by now ended and the two leave the pool hall.

Our next view is of the hall's door to the street, through which Joe and Artie can be seen (via a window) walking down a flight of stairs. The door is bordered by graffiti, including a smiling face and a large penis. The door slams open and the two enter the city street, whereupon they proceed to play fight. The significance of this (Joe and Artie's tendency to engage in play fighting) should not be overlooked: in a culture characterized by enforced heterosexuality, moments of playful aggression are also and often the only accepted public instances of intimate contact between males. (Quenten Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs offers similar moments between Chris Penn and Michael Madson.) Joe and Artie's play is interrupted, though, by a male/female couple walking towards them; the two whistle and howl at the woman (and/or the man) and briefly chase them down the street. But Artie now seems anxious for some reason and suggests to Joe that they 'get a pigeon', adding that he is 'itching' to get one, that he's 'going through the roof'. The ambiguity of the word 'pigeon' at this point in the film seems crucial for a reading based on homosexuality: Joe and Artie have seen a socially-acceptable suggestion of sexuality (the male/female coupling) and expressed desire for sex; Artie wants to find a 'pigeon' and his words seem to relay a sexual excitement; the meaning of the word pigeon becomes clear however, for the moment at least, as the two sink into a small alley together and obviously seem to await a pedestrian.

While waiting, the two begin to discuss their individual feelings on 'getting pigeons'. As Artie lights two cigarettes simultaneously, one for each of them, Joe asks, "Hey Artie, which do ya dig more, pigeons or broads?"

Artie responds, "Aww man, don't ask me that. I dig 'em both. Why? Which do you dig more?"

"I dig broads."



Pausing. "You don't dig pigeons, Joe?"

"I dig pigeons, but I dig broads more."

"I dig 'em both, man."

At this point two men are approaching, talking, and laughing. Joe calls the jump off and tells Artie that a car is coming. The men pass and Joe asks, "Why do ya dig 'em both, Artie?"


"Why do ya dig 'em both?"

"Awww, I don't know, man. They both go up my neck, like my back was burnin', ya know? Like I can't see nothin' else." Smiling. "They both make me feel good all over."

Again, Sheen's character seems to express an almost orgasmic, certainly sexual attraction to what is presumed at this point to be jumping and robbing strangers. But his affinity for the event becomes more revealed when he asks Joe if he can 'have' the old man who is now approaching their ambush zone. Joe smiles and hands him the switchblade they presumably carry and share. By now it is clear that 'getting a pigeon' means murdering someone, and moreover that, since it is something they do together cooperatively, it is something Artie associates with Joe: a shared activity which he twice compares to (and equates with) sexuality. It should also be emphasized here that this issue is Joe and Artie's only source of disagreement in the film: while Artie says he 'digs em both', Joe would not equate the two acts and hierarchically places one above the other. In a sense, then, what appears to be driving these two men to kill (rather than the acquisition of wealth and/or a feeling of teamwork) is obviously suggested to be a need to release built up sexual tension, which is moreover something of a source of tension between them homosexually. After robbing and murdering the old man (Artie's right hand is bandaged now from an accidental knife-cut formed in the killing) the two reenter the street riled: they pause as they stand together; Artie asks Joe what he wants to do with the eight dollars they have taken from the old man; Joe asks his companion what he wants to do with it; Artie responds, "Aww, man, I gotta fly tonight. I mean I really gotta fly"; Joe understands, asks Artie if he wants 'more kicks', and suggests going to Times Square. (The word 'fly', for Artie, thus also seems mean a state of pleasure.) As the pair laughs and walks away from view down the street, the film's opening titles and music begin.

Later, we are introduced to Privates Felix Teflinger and Philip Carmatti, a second male/male couple, as they are ending an evening of dinner and conversation with Philip's parents. Both are undoubtedly on some kind of leave from the Army and appear to be best friends. As they stand in the doorway saying goodbyes to Philip's parents, the two stand close and face one another; Philip adjusts Felix's tie and collar for him before they depart. A much more intimate moment, however, takes place when we next see them as they await the arrival of the subway: their stop is above ground and the two privates decide to stand against a nearby railing; Philip leans forward and faces out; Felix is on Philip's right facing his friend, rarely taking his eyes away from Philip; his casted arm is touching his friend's right arm; the camera closes in on the two of them gradually as discussion turns to Philip's parents:

"You sure got a nice family, Phil."

"Thanks, Felix. I'm glad you like 'em."

"I like your daddy, too. He's a nice warm man." Laughing.

"Yeah, he's a character. Isn't he?"

"Ooo, yeah."

"Uh, were you able to understand him?"

The camera angle jumps to a closer shot. The two are looking at each other; Bannard is in the foreground with his head turned in profile and Bridges is slightly in the background; their faces now appear, because of this angle, to be only inches apart, and Bannard seems to be wearing dark eye make-up. Felix answers Philip's question:

"Well I understood him alright. The question is, did he understand me?"

"Well, I think they were a little shocked when they saw that arm of yours." Philip turns his gaze to the street while Felix continues looking at his friend's face, smiling.

"Yeah, I know they were. They sure worry about you quite a bit don't they?"

"Mmm, oh yeah, yeah, they're always worryin' about me." Another pause while Philip gazes out and Felix continues to look at him with a smile, blinking his eyes twice. Philip breaks the silence: "Y-you don't have any folks, do you . . . Felix?"

"No. No, they uh, they died when I was small."

"I'm sorry."

"Nah. I really don't even remember too much about 'em."

"What're you gonna do when, uh, when you get out of the Army?"

"Well, I don't know, uh, I guess I'll work on a farm maybe, a filling station."


"I don't know. I think I ain't got no special plans. How 'bout you?"

"Ah, I can hardly wait to get out. I'm gonna go back to school. And then I'm gonna go to law school. And then fifty thousand a year, maybe--"


"--a hundred thousand a year. Maybe more."

"Aw, come on." Laughing. "You're sounding kinda ambitious there ain't you old buddy?"

The subway is arriving and ends the conversation here. Unlike Joe and Artie's, Felix and Philip's relations are characterized by differences pertaining to issues of wealth and responsibility: their mutual attraction is clear and they have so far demonstrated what appears to be an acceptance of this attraction by Philip’s family. Even though neither expresses a desire for a family (or for a relationship with a female for that matter {indeed, this fact leaves open the extent of their own sexual relationship}) Felix on the one hand has no nuclear family (to 'worry' about him) or serious plans for his future, while Philip on the other hand has both. And thus it is no surprise that, even while he is handicapped by a broken arm, Felix is nevertheless the one who later takes action against Artie and Joe while Philip watches and does not act. The film hence places Felix and Philip into the subway car immediately after a disagreement similar to those many of the other couples experience; yet if we refuse to relegate Felix Teflinger's power solely to his position as a white military male, it seems clear that a certain amount of his power to intervene stems from the fact that he is, decidedly, more like Joe and Artie than the other commuters are: more alone, less characterized by wealth, family, and community.

A only overt scene involving homosexuality, though, comes to us via the third male/male couple of the film: Ken Otis and Doug McCann. The two meet in a bar near a subway station where Ken has been trying (unsuccessfully) to find a companion willing to share his company. The scene begins prior to Doug’s entrance, however, with the bartender asking Ken if he wants another drink. (Fields is dressed in a gray suit, a white dress shirt, and a black tie, and he is wearing eye make-up similar to Bannard's.) Ken replies silently by slowly shaking his head. The bartender then moves to two middle-aged women sitting at the end of the bar drinking. The camera follows, and he asks them, "Which one of you girls gonna take me home tonight, eh?" The women respond with loud laughter as the camera returns to Fields, who sighs and shifts in his seat uncomfortably. It becomes apparent that Ken is the character intended to openly express homosexual desire, though, when his attention is soon drawn to a lone man who has just arrived to sit at the bar some three seats away. Ken glances for a moment at the man before moving to the seat next to him, but his attempt is interrupted when another male enters the scene and asks the first if he has ordered yet. The first looks past Ken and orders two scotches and water. Ken shakes his head, gets up from the bar, and the camera follows him across the room. The two women laugh again and Ken, assuming that they are laughing at him (although it is left up in the air whether they are or not) turns to look at them before entering the bathroom, whereupon he stumbles a little, opens the stall door, and proceeds to throw up in the toilet.

We are introduced to Doug as he makes his entrance into the same bar, orders water, and makes his way to the bathroom, where Ken is now washing his face in the sink. The two exchange glances and, because of the small size of the bathroom, must maneuver closely around one another. Doug moves off-camera to urinate while Ken lingers and watches him before washing his face again. Doug must twice move Ken out of his way physically in this scene by putting his hands on Ken's abdomen. Doug leaves the bathroom and Ken returns to the sink. Two scenes involving other characters take place before the film comes back to Ken and Doug. The latter by now has left the bar and is using a payphone in the nearby subway station while the former has followed him there. Doug is apparently attempting to set up a job interview through a friend he has called; among other things he reveals to us that his character is a recovering alcoholic and is separated from his wife and children at the moment. Ken crosses our view in the background just as Doug is telling his friend, Fred, that he 'could kiss his feet'; after hanging up, he is startled to find Ken immediately behind him. Doug moves away and Ken asks him for the time; Doug pauses and responds impatiently:

"There was a clock in that bar."


"There's a clock right over there by that change booth."

"In the bar, yeah. Uh, we were. . .drinking in the same. . .bar." Ken moves closer to Doug.

"What do you want?"

"I just wanted. . .are you going downtown? I thought maybe--"

"Go on. Beat it."

"We could, we could--"

"Beat it!"

"Wait a minute." Smiling nervously and stroking Doug's tie.

Doug shoves Ken's hand away and repeats, "Go on!" Ken walks away, then back, trying to apologize; Doug repeats again, "Go on!" The subway is arriving and, despite the interchange that has just occurred, the two nevertheless both get on the subway, glancing at each other before entering the car. Once they are in the subway car, Doug sits down and Ken, looking around and seeing the other commuters, attempts to move to the next car but finds the door jammed; he then sits down across from Doug, who looks up at him and grimaces. On one level, then, the film presents a minor portrayal of a man expresses homosexual desire who is outcast, alienated, rejected despite his bravery, and (to a degree) ridiculed. But Fields's character becomes far more complex during the dynamics that soon take place as Joe and Artie finally board the subway. Doug, in addition, becomes less one of a carrier of a culture's norms and standards and more one slightly analogous to Felix: like Felix, Doug has no family; and both eventually initiate functional resistance to Joe and Artie, and in so doing ally themselves with Joe and Artie by way of participating in the film’s play fighting.

The three pairs of males, for the most part, end up occupying the same half of the subway car: Fields is on the same side as Bridges and Bannard; Merrill is opposite near the sleeping drunk. Joe and Artie, upon entering, and after riding piggy-back (Artie on top of Joe) around the car screaming and laughing, first begin to tamper with the drunk by placing matches in his mouth; Doug asks them to stop what they are doing, suggesting that 'a man could get hurt that way'. Joe and Artie begin to torment Doug instead, asking him to 'make a speech' and whether he has ever witnessed 'dead man's twitch'; at one point Doug looks to the male/female couples at the other end of the car, who all stare back at him silently. Artie turns his attention to Ken and asks him if the drunk is a friend of his; Ken looks to the floor and gulps out a 'no'. Artie moves close to Ken, kneeling in front of him, and spends several minutes convincing him that he wants help in overpowering Joe, that he would like to go out afterwards, and that, in order to make the plan work, he must 'rough up' Ken first. Dissonant music builds as Artie grabs Ken's tie, lifts Ken slowly out of his seat, throws him against the wall, and yells, "Fucking fag! You make me wanna puke!"

Joe and Artie's domination and ridicule of Ken continues (and becomes more complex), however, when Joe takes Ken to a walled-in corner near the door and attempts to remove his shirt: Joe, in the process, begins to rub Ken's chest and asks, "Oh, you like that?" Ken moans and says that he doesn't. Artie overhears this and screams, "Rape! Rape!" He laughs and adds, "What are you doing in that corner you dirty thing?" Joe picks up Ken, who has gone limp, and proceeds to dance with him around the car while Artie sings 'dancing around the maypole'. Significantly, it is here that Doug intervenes successfully again: by kicking Joe as he drags Ken past him. The singing ceases and Joe stops. A long, quiet pause (nearly thirty seconds) takes place in which Joe strangely holds Ken tightly in a hug and stares into his face, their chins touching. (This moment might be merely one of indecision on the part of Musante's character, as no immediate action is taken against Doug; yet this duration of time would not be characteristic of someone accustomed to making quick decisions; and, moreover, Joe does not seem to acknowledge Doug's action; rather, it might be that the act of holding Ken, like getting a pigeon, temporarily fulfills Joe’s homosexual desires.) Artie approaches, places his bloody bandage over Ken's head like a kerchief, and leads him back to the corner by his tie, calling him 'the princess' and a 'bad girl'.

Another strange moment takes place when Felix makes his first attempt at intervention: he asks the two terrorists to 'settle down' and 'quit rocking the boat for awhile', and an idle conversation begins between Felix and Joe concerning the Army and its methods of training soldiers to fight; Joe proposes a team fight involving the four of them, but Felix declines, adding that he has a 'busted wing' and that both of them (Felix and Joe) know that he would lose; Joe offers to tie one hand behind his back. Felix responds:

"No thanks."

Joe, standing in front of him, leaning over into his face now, asks, "What're you? Yella?"

"No. No, I just know that you could beat me into a pulp either way. I know it and you know it. Don't you? So what'll it prove?"

"Yeah, you're stinkin' well told you know it."

"That's what I said."

Joe becomes enraged at this point, tells Felix to keep quiet from now on, and grips him by the chin; Felix pulls Joe's hand away with his free one, but the latter resists. Four close-ups are offered of both characters here: Felix straining against Joe's strength; Joe smiling wildly, licking his lips; Felix now more calm and beginning to smile; Joe becoming concerned and looking quite confused. The camera angle changes and we now see both characters from a distance of several feet: Joe is retracting his hand slowly; Felix says (four times) calmly, 'it's alright', and strokes Joe's hand once; Joe pulls his hand away, but returns it to the space between them. A final close-up of Musante's face is given in which he maintains a confused look. Nearly ten seconds pass as Joe retreats quietly to his seat. Both characters (in the duration) glance to the other commuters with embarrassed expressions, and soon the ride and terrorizing (again) continue as if nothing has happened. Later, of course, it is also Felix who finally ends Joe and Artie's reign of terror by battling with them individually: Joe is beaten over the head several times by Felix's casted arm; Artie is kneed in the crotch and hit over the head, also by the cast. While this last scene might be the intended climax of this cinematic text (and might even be 'the incident' itself) it ultimately leaves film without one, simple, moralistic message: arguably, in a reading that opens space beyond the film's heroic finale, there are several scenes that could be called 'the incident'; for if we treat Joe Ferrone and Artie Connors as characters whose subtle homosexual relationship (with each other and with other characters) provide a richer and more ambiguous subtext, the film's seemingly 'late sixties' social commentary becomes, in some ways, inadequate and reductive. Rather than as a treatise on capitalism and the dangers resulting from its unequal distribution of wealth and power, The Incident would be better looked at as a very problematic re-construction of the homosexuality of desire as product and cause of the criminal mind: it is enforced heterosexuality that leaves Ken Otis powerless, and it is this that seems to bring about Joe and Artie's (almost overly) defensive attack on his character; and, ironically, it is more his ambiguous role in a realm of homosexuality (than his power as a white male) that make Felix Teflinger acknowledge, contest, especially understand Joe and Artie.