Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

Director: William A. Wellman                         Writer: Lamar Trotti
Film Score: Cyril J. Mockridge                       Cinematography: Arthur C. Miller
Starring: Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Mary Beth Hughes and Harry Morgan

Long before Henry Fonda was one of 12 Angry Men and had to convince the other eleven of them of a boy’s innocence, he had the much more daunting task of convincing twenty angry men and a woman not to lynch three men in The Ox-Bow Incident. This is a classic film by William Wellman that looks at frontier justice and asks the audience to take sides. The story comes from the classic novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark that had recently been published in 1940. It’s a sobering tale that leaves a bad tasted in the readers’ mouth, and had to be altered significantly for the screen in order to twist the ending into something palatable for the audience of the day. Even so, it’s a powerful film, and though it was nominated for an Academy Award that year it lost out to the war-time blockbuster Casablanca.

The story begins in a small Nevada town, with Henry Ford and Harry Morgan riding in after a long time on the trail. They hit the bar and Fonda fights with Marc Lawrence who obliquely accuses him of cattle rustling. As Ford and Morgan are leaving, a young kid rides in and tells the whole bar that Lawrence’s best friend has been killed. Immediately Lawrence wants to get together a posse and go after the killer, but Harry Davenport attempts to be the voice of reason, pleading with them to wait for the sheriff to get back and bring the killer in to stand trial. Ultimately, however, Lawrence wins the day and sets out with a large posse that includes Paul Hurst and Jane Darwell, who can’t wait to hang someone. The de facto leader is Frank Conroy who brings along his embarrassment of a son in a misguided attempt to make a man out of him.

The group catches up to three men in the mountains. Dana Andrews is a newly arrived rancher who bought some cattle from the dead man, and he has two partners. Anthony Quinn actually does a fairly effective job playing a Mexican, and Francis Ford is a doddering old man. Of course the three men have no idea that someone has died, but they also have no receipt for the dead man’s cattle. In addition, Quinn tries to make a break for it, which confirms their guilt for the posse. There’s a minor subplot with Mary Beth Hughes and Fonda that goes nowhere and seems very out of place. Dana Andrews is great, though it’s strange to see him out of an urban setting. Finally, the great Margaret Hamilton puts in a cameo appearance as a housekeeper.

There’s a strong allegorical undercurrent to the film, in that the western overlay is just a façade. The story could be set anywhere, especially in the South where there were more lynchings than there ever were out west. And it is full of a cross-section of characters, some older and wiser, others older and bitter. There’s a young hot-head and a mean woman, and a lot of men who don’t want to be there. The ones who want to stop the madness and take the men back for a trial are outnumbered, not necessarily by the ones eager for a hanging as they are by the ones unwilling to do anything to stop them. Director William Wellman does a nice job, but the extensive use of studio sets for the exteriors is a little disappointing. Still, The Ox-Bow Incident is a great picture, an American classic and an enduring piece of cinematic art.

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