A belated entry into the Cold War thriller genre that appeared to have peaked with Dr Strangelove (1964), Fail Safe (1964) and Seven Days in May (1964). The Bedford Incident, filmed in black-and-white with a less-than-stellar cast nonetheless holds its own as an examination of men under pressure, a cat-and-mouse actioner, as well as a stark warning of the dangers of nuclear war.
The top-billed Richard Widmark turned producer on this one, as he had done for The Secret Ways (1961), not so much to greenlight a pet project as to hold onto a spot at Hollywood’s high table just when that seemed to be slipping out of his grasp after the commercially disastrous John Ford roadshow Cheyenne Autumn (1964). In truth, Widmark’s position as an outright star appeared questionable. He seemed to transition all too easily between top billing (Warlock, 1959, The Long Ships, 1964) and second billing (Two Rode Together, 1961, Judgement at Nuremberg, 1961, and Flight from Ashiya 1964).
Also putting his neck on the line was James B. Harris who was making the jump to director from producer of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957) and Lolita (1962).
Widmark is a maverick U.S. Navy destroyer captain hunting down Russian submarines should they stray into territorial waters. He has been passed over for promotion, despite having previously successfully forced a Russian sub to the surface. Into his meticulously-run ship are dropped photo journalist Sidney Poitier (re-teamed with Widmark after The Long Ships) and doctor Martin Balsam and, in effect, their presence is a simple device to put Widmark under the spotlight, in some respects challenge his operational methods, and to provide an excuse to tell the audience everything they need to know.
Among the ship’s crew and with privotal roles are James MacArthur as a young ensign and Eric Porter an a German former U-boat commander who acts as an advisor and if you keep your eyes peeled you might spot a fleeting glimpse of Donald Sutherland as part of the medical crew.
The newcomers are afforded insight into how this ship is run and into its hunting methods, for example, dredging up waste from the sea in order to examine it for evidence of a Russian presence. There is a bundle of interesting technical data – a submarine has to surface for air, as another example – and the soundtrack mostly consists of endless sonar. Apart from the German, who appears to subsist on Schnapps, the crew is unusually top-quality, the sick bay deserted, the enterprise run under wartime conditions, every person on board dedicated to fulfilling the captain’s every wish.
The tension is in triplicate. First of all, there is the obsessive captain who could just explode from tension; secondly, there is the hunt for the submarine replete with tactical maneuvers and hunches; and finally, always in the background, there is the nuclear element and the fear that untoward action could trigger a holocaust. And there’s also time to take down a peg or two the holier-than-thou visitors, Balsam revealed as a civilian doctor returning to the service as a refuge, Poitier as a rather spoiled individual who complains when dangerous maneuvers interrupt his shower. Eric Porter is excellent as a hunter who has the unenviable task of trying to rein in his boss. James MacArthur (a graduate from the Disney school) shows maturity as a young officer cracking under pressure. Poitier is excellent in a more relaxed role.
But Widmark steals the show. His over-acting often stole the show when he had a supporting role, but this is a finely nuanced performance. An admirable, instinctive commander, he is loved by his men (such adoration not easily won) with a gift for battle and outfoxing an opponent, often barely containing his own tension. It would have been easy to ramp up the pressures he felt in the way of Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny (1954) but there’s a big difference between a man about to crack and one who loves battle and is desperate to score victory.
Harris makes a sound debut, the decision to film in black-and-white paying off, and enough going on through personality clash and the sub hunt to keep the pace taut. Authenticity was added by filming aboard naval vessels (although British in this case) and what little model work there is does not look out of place. A bigger budget would have made better use of the actual hunt (as The Hunt for Red October, 1990, later proved) but sound effects rather than visual effects suffice. I had not at all expected the shock ending. Another point in this film’s favor is that the threat of nuclear apocalypse has not gone away and the fact remains that the world as we know could disappear at the touch of a button.