Columbia Pictures would seem to have had the patent on doomsday thrillers during the mid-1960's, between Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe, and this movie. The Bedford Incident is, alas, the most dry, humorless, and inaccessible of the three, which damages its attempt at creating suspense. Based on Mark Rascovich's novel, it tells of a nuclear confrontation between an American naval vessel and a Soviet submarine near the Arctic Circle -- the mere setting of the story aboard the confines of the ship ought to create dramatic tension. Additionally, it sets up a situation that is sort of "Moby Dick meets Fail-Safe" -- the character of Richard Widmark's Captain Finlander is this story's Ahab, consumed by a passion for the hunt of the elusive submarine that causes him to exceed the bounds of his mission or his orders, to the doom of all. And Widmark is so good in the role, that he's almost scary to watch, intense yet never to over-the-top in his portrayal as to break the willing suspension of disbelief. The problem is that there is no other character in the script that can convincingly balance his -- there's no "Starbuck" to his Ahab, or even an Ishmael through whose eyes we can view the story. Sidney Poitier's Ben Munceford, the reporter sent aboard the ship, never gets far from being annoying and shrill, while the other characters, from Eric Portman's unapologetic retired U-Boat commander and Martin Balsam's well-meaning but ineffectual medical officer on down, never approach the degree of substance or depth that we find in Finlander. Further, with the exception of a very few lighter moments that are supposed to show the human foibles of the characters we're watching, the movie suffers from a very dry script. Perhaps the problem was insoluble -- the plot is presented in as realistic manner as possible (though in real life, no ship's captain would ever sit still for the kind of badgering that Munceford gives Finlander), so much so that Fail-Safe almost seems like light viewing. Fine as its points are made and its plot is drawn, however, The Bedford Incident just doesn't happen to be a very accessible or emotionally involving drama. On the positive side of the production, Gilbert Taylor's stark black-and-white photography, bound within the confines of the ship and the actic surroundings, stays with you long after the memories of the partly realized characters have faded, and Leslie Hammond's work on the sound -- dominated by the pulsing of the ship's equipment and the ominous sonar in operation (which, by the end of the movie, seems as unrelenting as Finlander's lust to catch the sub) -- is absolutely chilling, if not quite as memorable as Sidney Lumet's use of the freeze-frame at the end of Fail-Safe.
by Bruce Eder review