The Incident (1990) poster

The Incident (1990)

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1h 01 min

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As the first of the movies titles appears in front of the picture, the scene switches to a town meeting in the open air, with a makeshift stage under an awning and a sizeable audience seated on rows of folding chairs, listening to Cobb who is at a microphone, addressing them through a public address system: Soldiers like me . Well my friends America is the greatest nation that ever existed under the sun. So we are to know that Cobb is a World War I US army veteran and a patriot, and also that he is well known to everyone in town. The crowd includes his daughter-in-law Billie and granddaughter Nancy (who is holding a rod with a stars and stripes flag --- a foot wide, not one of those tiny ones) and a fair number of soldiers in uniform, as well as civilian citizens of the town. This is an occasion with all the trimmings. Cobb talks of the death in Europe of one of his comrades in arms. Then the band plays America and everyone sings the anthem.The scene cuts between this speech at the meeting, and the German military detail which proceeds with the burial of Unteroffizier Schmidt. Here too a speech is going on: the speaker, Hauptfeldwebel Hans Riefenstahl (as we will later meet him) (Norbert Weisser), is clearly a Nazi, referring reverently, as he does, to the Führer. He ends Lang lebe Deutschland (Long live Germany) and all give the Nazi salute. But there are no Americans present here.There is a scene in the saloon we see the other old men of the town, including Doctor George Hansen (Barnard Hughes) a local physician who, we gather, also has to work at the nearby Camp Bremen, which holds German prisoners of war. We gather that the townsfolk hate Germans including the prisoners of war because so many of them have sons away fighting in the war. When Doc Hansen arrives the men ask how many more prisoners were on the latest trainload. About a hundred; the Doc starts to say something else about the Germans then changes his mind and ends with What I learn at the camp stays at the camp and then asks one, Clarence Heathcote, whether the two of them are going fishing. He says hell bring the beer.Harmon Cobb who is also there gets up to leave, saying dryly Thanks for the conversation but he has a client to see. Knowing him too well for that, they ask whether the client is Jim Beam or Jack Daniels. Back in his office we see Cobb on the phone begging the store proprietress (a Miss Barnes) to allow him to pay only $25 of his current outstanding grocery bill this month, but he suddenly starts to pretend his call is with a male client, when his friend the town police chief John Wallace (William Schallert) stops by, but Wallace is not fooled. It is evident Cobb has no work and is very short of money. Invited to do so, he helps himself to the whiskey from the bottle hidden on the filing cabinet.Cobb is late back and Billie is angry that hes late. Nancy is practising at the piano. Billie tells him that Harold has written another letter home, which Billie reads out to him, all except for the endearments at the end (what Cobb and Nancy always call mushy love stuff). We learn briefly about how all such letters from forces in war were censored, as Harold cannot say where he is (Nancy knows they are in France); however he says the locals all speak French, and that part of the letter isnt censored, a point not lost on Nancy.Cobb finishes his dinner, gets the letter, and steps outside onto the front porch to read it again. He immediately notices Doc Hansen who is evidently drunk, leaning against a lamppost right in front of Cobbs house and sinking to the ground in the pool of light it casts on him. Cobb runs over to help him. Doc says something about dead soldiers. We know he has been fishing with Clarence, for which he took along a lot of beer. Cobb gathers that Doc is afraid to go home to his wife Edna Mae in his present state, but he wont let Cobb give him the generous amount of hot coffee Cobb says he needs to sober up. Cobb has to let Doc wander off into the night as he is.Next morning, Harmon Cobb is watering his tree when John Wallace drives by to tell him that Doc is dead, killed in the night. Soon a cavalcade of automobiles with motorcycle MP (military police) outriders swings into Lincoln Bluff bringing a German prisoner to the town courthouse. Harmon Cobb is in the diner telling his friends that the town is full of US marshals and that he heard Clarence Darrow would be the only lawyer able to defend the German prisoner except he has been dead six years. The jokes laughter is interrupted when one of those US Marshall (Rick Zahradnik) walks in, shows his badge and asks Cobb to go with him.Cobb is taken to the town courthouse. The death has indeed been made a federal case: some very young US attorneys, some federal marshals, and an elderly federal judge by the name of Bell (thats B E L L) have arrived in town. The judge (Harry Morgan) proceeds to tell Cobb that he has been chosen to represent the German prisoner of war, one Hauptfeldwebel Wilhelm Geiger (the judge does not know the name, and asks one of the young federal lawyers (Stephen West ) to read it out; then he asks what the rank means and is told it is German for Sergeant. (It is actually a senior sergeant rank, the British equivalent being something like Company Sergeant Major.) The judge says well why didnt you say so?!The judge then tells him that the President of the USA has ordered that this man be tried in public, in a civil court, with all the visible evidence of fairness that can be developed, in order to provide an example of American justice in a trial on a capital offence. This aims to provide something with which to bargain for the lives of three Americans who are on trial for their lives in Darmstadt, Germany. Harmon Cobb is not at all keen to act as this mans defence lawyer and says so; the judge tells him to wait and announces to the room that Cobb and he are going for a stroll. They proceed on a tour of the spacious, almost palatial courthouse building which is everywhere bustling with activity: people rushing about and porters bringing in filing cabinets on trolleys. They take a ride upstairs in an elevator, ending up in the courtroom itself.Cobb has to tell the judge why he doesnt want the job: he has to live in the town and anyone seen defending the German prisoner in this murder case will be a pariah. Also he is only qualified to do it, being a member of the New York district bar, because the certificate looked good on my wall. He claims to know nothing of federal court procedures. But Judge Bell is not going to allow Cobb to turn the job down. Evidently the judges aim is to have Cobb take part because he is just an obviously unsuccessful small town lawyer so he will not complicate the business of prosecuting the prisoner, quickly finding him guilty and condemning him to capital punishment quite soon so as to meet this ulterior requirement; and yet Cobbs ineffectuality will not be known to anyone further afield or abroad, so that the piece of theatre will not be affected. The judge tells Cobb he will be paid several thousand dollars as a fee and that he knows he needs the money. He also tells him that if he still refuses. He will debar him (force him to resign) and then have him thrown into jail for contempt for good measure, and that Cobb can tell his friends in town that the judge forced him to do the job. Cobb has no choice but to accept. The first hearing is to be at 3.00 that afternoon.Cobb is very unhappy. He sets out into the corridor and meets federal prosecutor Domsczek (Robert Carradine) who is directing porters setting up his office. He summarizes for Cobb the evidence against the defendant. Meanwhile it also emerges that Cobb never went to law school: He studied alone (like Abe Lincoln) and also split rails and wrestled; whereas the young hotshot went to Harvard.Cobb goes to see the defendant, Geiger (Peter Firth). Geiger is hostile and dismissive. At this time, he just recites his name rank and serial number, plus regiment. Cobb turns round and leaves, as the prisoner repeats his recitation over and over. In the diner bar, his supposed friends have already heard the news and are not speaking to him. One even gets up and leaves, and the waitress suggests a German dish instead of his usual. Already Cobb has to protest loudly that the federal judge told him hed throw him in jail if he didnt take the job. The others, including Clarence Heathcote (Douglas Rowe) and John Wallace, take that seriously and accept Cobb had no choice. He goes on: All Im going to do is make sure that snotty prosecutor doesnt make me look like a hick; then Im going to go watch the hanging. I may even ask to spring the trap door. Wallace asks what hes g