Monday, September 6, 2021

Cold War Thrills in The Bedford Incident

Richard Widmark as Captain Finlander.
The 1960s was a grand decade for top-notch Cold War thrillers such as The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seven Days in May (1964), and Fail Safe (1964). Although it falls a little short of those aforementioned films, The Bedford Incident (1965) remains a first-rate drama that crackles with tension from start to finish.

Richard Widmark stars as Captain Eric Finlander, who commands the U.S.S. Bedford, a destroyer whose purpose is to monitor Soviet submarines and "prevent by threat a certain course of action by the enemy." The Bedford's new chief physician, a reserve officer named Potter (Martin Balsam), clashes almost immediately with Finlander. The captain belittles Potter by stating he did not request a new medical officer and holds reserve officers in low regard. 

Potter and Ben Munceford, a journalist on board to write a story about Finlander, soon detect on a pervasive atmosphere of apprehension aboard the ship. The crew works long hours, remains constantly on high alert, and are discouraged from going to sick bay. Munceford (Sidney Poitier) also picks up on Finlander's unbridled excitement when the Bedford discovers a Soviet submarine patrolling near Greenland. The captain insists that his mission is only deterrence, but Munceford begins to wonder if Finlander is obsessed with destroying the Soviet vessel.

Sidney Poitier as Munceford.
The Bedford Incident is a slow burn that methodically builds suspense to its unexpected climax. There are no action scenes. Rather, James B. Harris--in his directorial debut--is content to let the screenplay do the heavy lifting. Harris, who worked with Stanley Kubrick on several films (including Paths of Glory), directs with an unobtrusive, sure hand. The film's most memorable scenes--when Potter confronts Finlander and when Munceford interviews the captain--could have been lifted from a stage play. That's meant to be a compliment as it shows Harris's total trust in his actors to deliver the drama.

Veteran screenwriter James Poe's adaptation of the novel by Mark Rascovich wisely avoids turning The Bedford Incident into a contemporary Moby Dick. Yes, Finlander is obsessed with the Soviet submarine, but his sense of duty keeps him from pursuing personal goals at the expense of imperiling his country. This internal dilemma is what makes the final outcome in The Bedford Incident so devastating.

It's easy to see why Richard Widmark, who also served as one of the producers, was drawn to The Bedford Incident. It provides him with one of the best roles of his distinguished career. I love the aforementioned lively interview between Munceford and Finlander in which one can see the latter trying to dampen his temper and choose his words carefully because of his distrust of the press. It's a master class in acting.

Martin Balsam and (far right) Wally Cox.
Sidney Poitier is content to play Munceford as a catalyst. We never learn much about the journalist, but through him, we learn a lot about Finlander, Dr. Potter, and a former German U-boat commander on board as a NATO observer (the excellent Eric Portman). James MacArthur and Wally Cox are also present in small but pivotal roles. Look quickly and you may be able to spot Donald Sutherland and Ed Bishop (UFO) as crewmen.

The Bedford Incident was the third teaming of Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier, following No Way Out (1950) and The Long Ships (1964). When Widmark died in 2008, his friend Poitier said: "His creative work is indelible on film and will be there to remind us of what he was as an artist and a human being."


  1. I have not seen this engrossing film in many years. I hope to lose myself in its many wonderful aspects again soon. I am certain to have gained a greater appreciation after reading your article.

  2. This is a top notch entrant. I reviewed Seven Days in May on my blog - one of the first films I reviewed. Widmark was, I think, an chronically under-rated actor - he was really, really good. And Poitier? Are you kidding? Sign me up.

  3. I first read and liked the book, so was jazzed to see the movie. An excellent adaptation, one of the best. (They did change the ending, as I recall.) A favorite Widmark role.

  4. I happened to see this film for the first time a couple of months ago. Like you said, it's a slow burn, and Widmark's performance is terrific.