On June 14, 1967, newspapers reported that a Bronx teenager deliberately flicked a match onto a pool of gasoline beneath a leaking taxicab. The cab blew up and 19 people, mostly teenagers and kids, were injured. The descriptions portray a horrifying scene with children on fire running around the street. The young man apologized later, saying that he didn't think it would do much damage.
While an accident like this cannot be a direct indicator of the widespread youth-driven revolution that was to come in the next months and years, a lit match can certainly function as a social synecdoche for that period, both from the standpoint of youth rebellion and of the decaying establishment as landlords shirked responsibility and burned Bronx buildings to get insurance claims with the help of crafty "fixers." According to some accounts, buildings were also burned to the ground by street gangs who used the same fraudulent "white collar" techniques and even hired the same crafty insurance operators to "fix" their situations. The few people left living in the buildings, often the elderly and families with small children, were rarely given much, if any, notice that their homes would soon be destroyed.
There are echoes here of the Tennessee Williams line from The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore: "We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it." And Director Charlie Kaufman, inspired by Williams, includes a perpetually burning house in his film, Synecdoche, New York. (See minute 01:02 in the trailer.)
The Incident, an excellent and almost forgotten urban crime thriller, was being filmed in the Bronx during the same month as the taxi explosion, right around June 14, 1967. I imagine the director, Larry Peerce, who grew up in the Bronx, heard the tragic news that day or perhaps a friend told him about it on the street. Given the tone and empathic characters in the film, I can only imagine he was deeply saddened by what happened.
Peerce's film claims to "hit [sic] like a switchblade knife!" and portrays two punks who terrify passengers on the Bronx El as it rolls south towards Grand Central Station. The outdoor scenes were shot along the old 3rd Avenue IRT elevated line. It's Martin Sheen's first film. He had just changed his name from Estevez because he had not been getting any acting work and felt the dearth was due to prejudice against his name, a real-life change that fits the social critique of the film.
The entire cast is pretty amazing. In addition to Sheen, we have Beau Bridges, Ruby Dee, Ed McMahon, Jack Gilford, and Brock Peters. Tony Musante, who stars alongside Sheen, is incredible as a positively demonic hoodlum. The tagline in the title of this blog entry was an official tagline for the theatrical release in November 1967. I'm particularly drawn to the use of "terrifying terror." Excellent.
This film is worth watching. I was able to catch the entire thing on YouTube, but it seems to be spread out into episodes now. Either way, we seem to get a prescient moment during which Peerce and Sheen and Musante channel the spirit of an age yet to come. They are enflamed human matches in this film, on fire and ready for an explosion.
On the same day the news broke about the taxi explosion, June 14, 1967, and across the globe in Tokyo, Seijun Suzuki had just put the finishing touches on Branded to Kill, a jazzy and very stylish gangster flick that is part Bunuel, part Chris Marker and all Suzuki. The taxi explosion, The Incident and Branded to Kill are completely unrelated events and it's unlikely Suzuki would have heard about the tragedy, or perhaps even Peerce's film. Nevertheless, Branded to Kill, like The Incident, is a heated master work that seems to see the near future. More entertainment than reality, Branded to Kill is a different kind
of thriller and departs from the gritty reality of The Incident in almost every way. It's quasi-psychodrama hit man movie that nevertheless occupies a similar space of lawlessness sometimes coveted by young men like those in The Incident. Goro Hanada, played by the great Jo Shishido, a Suzuki favorite, is the No. 3 Killer who would like to be No. 1 Killer. (As an aside, Shishido had plastic surgery to enlarge his cheeks because he wasn't getting any acting jobs. After that, he started getting gangster roles. So, what's the deal with actors enlarging their cheeks to look more like gangsters, a la Marlon Brando? Do gangsters have puffy cheeks?)
In keeping with the theme of flames and enflamed actors, Hanada and his wife, played campily by Mariko Ogawa, have a spat after which she sets their apartment on fire.
There are so many amazing scenes in both of these films. All I can say is that they are both very much worth watching. Even just these two scenes, randomly picked by me from each film, are incredibly strong and stylized. The rain, the fire, the sex, the death in Branded to Kill. And the seeds of distrust, fragile courage, bullying and social cowardice in The Incident. The Incident is clearly meant to show a social reality and more clearly defines truth than Branded to Kill with its rice-sniffing gangster, but neither are reality, not in the way the taxi explosion is. And yet, in some ways they channel the lived tensions we associate with the late 1960s. Like the young man from the Bronx on that June day in 1967, we all like to play with fire, no matter what our age.