Friday 9 September 2016

Movie Review: The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

A sharp Western with ominous overtones The Ox-Bow Incident is unapologetic in its bleak assessment of the enticing mentality to apply simple solutions to complex problems.

Nevada, 1885. Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan) ride into the small town of Bridger's Wells. Although not exactly strangers, Carter and Croft have been away long enough to be treated with some suspicion by the men at Darby's Saloon, where the talk of the town is about cattle rustlers. Carter is disappointed to hear that his girl Rose (Mary Beth Hughes) has left town during his absence. The townsfolk are enraged when word arrives that Kincaid, a local cattleman, has been shot dead by the rustlers.

A bloodthirsty posse is formed despite the absence of the local sheriff. The elderly Davies (Harry Davenport) and the local judge try to talk sense into the men, but the self-styled Major Tetley (Frank Conroy) appoints himself as posse leader. Gil and Art reluctantly join in. Soon the posse catches up with three men traveling together: rancher Donald Martin (Dana Andrews), Mexican Juan Martínez (Anthony Quinn) and a confused old man (Francis Ford). With Tetley leading the on-the-spot interrogation, the trio are accused of being the rustlers and Kincaid's murderers, despite Donald's well-reasoned protestations. Carter and Croft have to decide where they stand as an instantaneous triple hanging looms.

An adaptation of the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark directed by William A. Wellman, The Ox-Bow Incident is a kick in the gut. A searing commentary on the human condition, the film is limited to about 4 sets and 75 minutes of running time, but packs a profound impact in its grim portrayal of group think, blind lust for revenge, and justice shortcuts exercised for convenience.

Wellman signals early that this is no ordinary Western. In the opening scene Gil Carter enters Darby's Saloon and is immediately captivated by the large painting above the bar, showing a dippy man emerging from behind a curtain, approaching an attractive woman reclining in the foreground. That guy'’s awful slow getting there, comments Gil, followed by I feel sorry for him. Always in reach and never able to do anything about it.” and then I got a feeling she could do better. Gil's not done: later he adds “Ain'’t that guy got there yet?”

Rarely has a seemingly incidental painting attracted so much attention in a film script, but of course the painting is about much more than a man and a woman. It's about reaching a better state of evolution where men find their status of civility, and in this dusty little town on the western edge of civilization, it ain't happening any quicker than the painted man is moving towards the woman. As soon as word reaches the Saloon that Kincaid is dead a lynch mob is assembled, and most of the men plus the gun-happy "Ma" Jenny Grier (Jane Darwell) are eager to ride and carve out a rudimentary version of justice. The old timers who protest are shouted down, while Gil and Art go along, not through any sense of conviction but because it is the expected thing to do.

When the mob comes face to face with Donald Martin's group, there is an attempt at due process. After all, the man is halfway emerging from the curtain. But by dawn the posse is restless. The delay tactics have run their course and the business of revenge needs to be looked after.

Despite the efficient duration and seemingly simple story, Wellman bundles an enormous amount into the film, with a theme of injustice feeding on egotistical quests. Major Tetley perceives his son Gerald (William Eythe) to be weak, and part of Tetley's motivation in leading the posse is to create a test environment for his offspring. Ironically, Gerald's unease with violence emerges as one of the few bright spots for a better future. Meanwhile, the deputy sheriff is also motivated by his desire to exert unearned authority, and oversteps his powers to deputize all the men.

Donald, Juan and the old coot in their company are not exactly squeaky clean. Their story keeps changing, Juan carries mischievous tendencies and the old man is quick to sell his soul for cheap. And finally Gil is on his own journey to better understand his destiny: on a teetering trail edge he will bump into Rose, once his future and now his past, but never to be his present: again, the lady is beyond reach, this time more literally. The multiple character-driven plot threads give The Ox-Bow Incident plenty of somber avenues to explore.

Fourteen years later Fonda would find himself in a similar on-screen situation, as The Ox-Bow Incident pairs remarkably well with 1957's Twelve Angry Men. In both cases men rush to justice for all the wrong reasons, lives hang in the balance, and Fonda is the outsider wielding some influence. The Ox-Bow Incident is darker and more visceral, the human desire for vengeance and retribution a powerful force on the bitterly cold nights of the frontier.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

1 comment:

  1. This is as good as a movie gets. It's also one I bring up for people who "hate Westerns." This is a courtroom drama and a morality play that just happens to be in spurs and cowboy hats. A hell of a story, and nearly perfectly executed.


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