Walter Matthau’s first made-for-TV movie seems, at first, a creaky vehicle: a courtroom drama set during World War II, in which Matthau plays a small-town lawyer forced to defend a Nazi prisoner-of-war on a murder rap.
It’s the sort of aging underdog role that has been done to death. But sharp-witted acting by Matthau and an engaging supporting cast makes The Incident a satisfying piece of old-fashioned TV storytelling.
Matthau plays Harmon Cobb, a cranky, complacent lawyer who’d rather go fishing with his granddaughter than show up in court. Cobb certainly doesn’t want to defend this hostile German POW (a ferocious Peter Firth).
But a federal judge played by Harry Morgan insists that Cobb take the job, even as the judge tries to make sure the German is found guilty by pitting the older man against an aggressive young sharpie of a prosecutor (Robert Carradine, in an excellently obnoxious performance).
Fifteen minutes into The Incident, you just know that something suspicious is going on and that Matthau will end up fighting passionately to save his German client. But it’s not the plot that keeps you glued to The Incident; it’s watching the strong cast — which also includes the underrated Susan Blakely as Matthau’s daughter — make the most of the engagingly chatty script, by Michael and James Norrell.
In the midst of all the chatter, Matthau commands attention by clamming up; he’s given to staring morosely into space before delivering a brief line in a tone of snappish sarcasm. Matthau has spent most of his career being thought of as a ”natural” actor who’s always playing a variation on himself, but that’s not giving him the credit he’s due for the very shrewd underacting he does here.
If The Incident does well in the ratings, CBS would be dumb not to offer Matthau a weekly series built around this character. Harmon Cobb, a hangdog version of Andy Griffith’s Matlock, could help beleaguered CBS out of the ratings cellar. B+