James B. Harris is still with us, still wants to make films I believe, but has slipped below radar. His odd, discontinuous and peripatetic directing career, which has resulted in some remarkable works, has been consigned to footnote status below his early period as Stanley Kubrick's producer on The Killing, Lolita and Dr. Strangelove. ("All these stories about Kubrick shooting a lot are still surprising to me, because when we worked together, we shot very few takes.")
I met Mr. Harris briefly at a party on a boat during the Lumière Film Festival in Lyons, but didn't get a chance to talk much as he was soon up on his feet dancing to Blondie. He was around 85 at the time. If "Heart of Glass" still gets you on your feet, there should be a rule that says you're still allowed to make movies.
The Bedford Incident (1965) was Harris's directorial debut, and also the first film where Sidney Poitier plays a role in which his race is not mentioned or relevant to the plot. Poitier had been starring in movies for fifteen years at this point: this one reunites him with Richard Widmark, the co-star of his first major movie, No Way Out (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950), and the pleasure the two actors take in each others' company is glowingly evident, even when they're playing adversaries.
Poitier plays a journalist trying to get a story on maverick battleship commander Widmark, who gets results, damnit, but has been passed over for promotion due to his aggressive approach to his job, which involves policing U.S. waters against any excursions by Russian subs. His advisor is a former Nazi U-boat commander, which may be cause for concern, played by the great Eric Portman, practically reprising his role from Powell & Pressburger's 49th Parallel. As the tension rises, with Widmark playing cat-and-mouse with a rogue Russian nuclear sub, things get even more worrying, as Portman starts to seem like the sanest man aboard.
He's also the most sympathetic, because he displays the most sympathy: as Widmark orders his ship to stay on top of its prey, forcing the Russians to stay underwater, with diminishing oxygen reserves, or risk an international incident or worse by surfacing, only Portman can truly imagine what the unseen foe is going through. His thoughts, we are told, are deep below the surface...
Other crew members include Martin Balsam as the new ship's doctor, alarmed by the tightness of the discipline (it's just not right that there should be no malingerers on a ship this size: Widmark commands his crew like a cult leader), and in smaller roles, nerdy character actor Wally Cox as radar wiz Seaman Merlin Queffle (!) and a very youthful Donald Sutherland, who clearly already has "it" in spades.
The filmmaking is tight and compelling, aided by realistic settings and real arctic footage: when night scenes compel Harris to use special effects (film stock not being fast enough to shoot this material for real), the model shots are unusually good, with clever angles and convincing lighting, so that the realism never diminishes. How Harris got the Navy to grant permission, given the critical view the film offers of military power structures and cold war politicking, is hard to fathom.
It's all very tense and compelling, and the conclusion, when it comes, is a shocker. It would not be fair to reveal too much. Here is Sidney Poitier reacting to it, though.