Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Ed McMahon, 1923-2009

Ed McMahon died early this morning. Of course, he's best known as Johnny Carson's announcer/sidekick on The Tonight Show. But his career was so much more than that. Among other things on TV, he served for many years as the announcer for Jerry Lewis' muscular dystrophy telethons; he hosted the 1980s talent show Star Search; and he co-hosted TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes alongside fellow TV legend Dick Clark. As this is a movie blog, though, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that McMahon did some movie work, and not just playing himself; probably his most notable work is The Incident.

The premise of this movie is very simple. A bunch of New Yorkers of various social strata are taking an elevated train back to their homes late one evening. Unfortunately for them, two young thugs (Tony Musante and Martin Sheen, in one of his earliest roles) are sharing the car with them, making everybody's life a living hell for those few minutes. These hoodlums don't seem to be out to steal their fellow passengers' wallets or even injure them; instead, they only seem to want to get their jollies out of finding each passenger's mental weakness and exploiting those weaknesses. The movie is extremely disconcerting, in large part because it's so realistic. It was filmed on a painstakingly-made replica of a New York train car, with hand-held cameras being used to heighten the sense of being trapped in a small space. (The producers really wanted to film on location, but the New York City Transit Authority wouldn't let them; the producers even went so far as to put hidden cameras in bags to try to get footage from along the actual train lines.) Also, the reaction of the passengers is depressingly realistic. We'd all like to think that we'd stand up to such a petty threat but, in reality, as long as the threat is directed at somebody else, we're more likely to be relieved that it's not being directed at us, and try to keep as unobtrusive as possible so that the bullies will stay away from us. It's worth noting that The Incident was made only a few years after the infamous murder of Kitty Genovese, as New York was in a slow slide in its quality of life that probably culminated with President Ford allegedly telling the city to "drop dead". In fact, neither the Kitty Genovese case nor President Ford's actions happened quite the way they've been depicted in the years since, and perhaps with the events of September 11, 2001, especially what happened on Flight 93, we might be more willing to intervene. (Then again, the passengers on Flight 93 had nothing to lose, and the threat was directed at all of them simultaneously.)

As for The Incident, it's got an excellent ensemble cast. In addition to McMahon, Musante, and Sheen, there's Ruby Dee (without Ossie Davis) as the social-worker girlfriend of a black-power type who doesn't want to intervene because whitey deserves these thugs; Thelma Ritter as an old woman with her husband; a young Beau Bridges as a serviceman with his arm in a cast; and in small roles, Gary Merrill and Jan Sterling. Sadly, The Incident has never been released to DVD, which is a huge shame.

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