The Curmudgeon


Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Bedford Incident

James B Harris 1965

The director of The Bedford Incident, James B Harris, was Stanley Kubrick's business partner and producer from The Killing (1956) to Lolita (1962). Harris' film is ironic and suspenseful rather than satirical and comic, and is very far from being derivative of Kubrick or anyone else; still, there are several parallels with Dr Strangelove, released in 1964 but, as usual with Kubrick, planned and researched for several years beforehand.

Both films deal with a sudden heating-up of the Cold War owing to the actions of renegade military officers: SAC commander Ripper (Sterling Hayden) in Kubrick's film, and naval commander Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark) in Harris'. Like Ripper, Finlander allows his psychological problems to push him into exceeding his authority: ordered to exercise restraint while chasing a Soviet submarine which has briefly violated NATO territory, Finlander instead becomes obsessed with forcing the sub to surface.

In both films, too, there is a chorus of rational characters who try to intervene: US president Muffley and RAF officer Mandrake (both played by Peter Sellers) in Dr Strangelove, and reporter Ben Munceford (Sidney Poitier), ship's doctor Potter (Martin Balsam) and German ex-submarine commander Schrepke (Eric Portman) in The Bedford Incident. However, although Muffley and Mandrake both take decisive action which could have averted disaster if not for some very bad luck, the voices of reason aboard the Bedford remain no more than voices, overruled and drowned by Finlander's mania. "What say we jump ship?" Potter suggests to Munceford at one point; unfortunately, as Schrepke later points out, the water is too cold.

Plenty of war films before and since Dr Strangelove have indulged in caricature, intended or otherwise; but the characterisation of Finlander, abetted by a superb performance from Widmark, is commendably complex. When Finlander confides to his most trusted subordinate that being a real bastard isn't as easy as it looks, the officer is sufficiently confident to reply that Finlander has enough talent to make it look very easy indeed; clearly the commander is no simple martinet.

Another quality which The Bedford Incident shares with Dr Strangelove is its sensitivity to language. When Munceford hears that Schrepke served in the German navy during the Second World War, he prods: "Hitler's navy?" Schrepke answers quietly, "Dönitz' navy." Finlander, whose outspokenness has hampered his career prospects and whose impatience with political manoeuvrings causes him to defy orders which refer to the delicate international situation, shows a similar lack of perspective over who is really in charge. He also displays an almost paranoiac sensitivity to the possibility of being misquoted; having finally granted Munceford an interview, he warns: "Don't ever put words in my mouth"; which, given the dénouement, is an irony worthy of Kubrick.

Harris' films appear to give the lie to Alex Cox's dictum that you should never let your leading actor co-produce: Richard Widmark co-produced The Bedford Incident, and in 1987 James Woods was co-producer as well as star of another ambivalent study of brutal masculinity, Harris' underrated James Ellroy adaptation Cop.


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