The Ox-Bow Incident Review
Whilst watching The Ox-Bow Incident you might be forgiven for thinking that we’ve lost something in the art of screenwriting since the film was released way back in 1943. The construction and discipline of character and narrative, whilst building palpable tension, is superlative. And that its formidable story can be satisfactorily dealt with in 75 minutes is testament to the fine film-making. Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful 8 bears more than a passing resemblance to the older film in its motives, yet it takes over three hours to reach a conclusion.
The Ox-Bow Incident was something special and bucking a trend even when originally released. A personal project for director William A. Wellman, despite working within the studio system, it’s his finest hour (plus 15 minutes, including credits). A sobering and dark tale of morals, there are no heroes, certainly no heroics, and it lacks much of what we take for granted in the Western genre, even while embracing it. In that sense at least it shares much with 3:10 To Yuma, a similarly simple plot, though one which is about exceptional bravery. It could be argued that The Ox-Bow Incident is very much the opposite, fulfilling much of what we would expect of Film Noir. In the run up to the war, the social conscious and prophetic thriller was more likely to find an audience than the Western.
It all comes down to a simple conceit of a lynch mob wrestling with the prospect of hanging three terrified men based on conjecture and rumour. Maybe they are guilty of murder and cattle rustling; certainly they can’t explain compelling evidence and the victim’s friends are in no mood to risk the law allowing them to wriggle out of it. But still it comes down to men and their vanity, their selfishness, their arrogance, and with three lives in the balance.
Sounds grim? Perhaps, but compellingly so. Much of the action takes place over one night at the camp of the three suspects, where they have been trapped by the large mob and Wellman exploits every shred of cinematic potential out of the limited setting. His inventive and extraordinary compositions make full use of the Academy ratio, while the editing steadily ratchets up the tension, supported by a deep-rooted study in character. As with John Huston conspiring with a wall and a hat to deliver a shooting off-screen in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre five years later, Wellman delivers at least one shocking moment with merely a shadow. Censorship is not a bad thing when it forces an artist to avoid the obvious.
Hitchcock said that tension was in waiting for a bomb to explode, not in the explosion, and same can be said in the excruciating battle of wits between Frank Conroy as Major Tetley and Harry Davenport as Davies, the latter arguing that the men should wait for the sheriff. But it’s Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan who are the focus for the viewer. They play drifters who arrive in town shortly before news breaks of a murder and a theft. They join the lynch mob and Fonda takes position as the moral centre, a volatile and simple man somewhat prone to violence. Much has been made of that darker edge in his character, but I’m not convinced it’s as deserving as it would be when he played a full villain in Once Upon A Time In The West. While reliably superb as always in this, he is both vital and oddly superfluous; if it’s possible to find padding in a 75 minute movie, then the blink and you’ll miss it sub-plot of a lost love with Mary Beth Hughes is it! She gets poster billing, but appears for a minute or so at most, and that much is a contrivance. She casts a shadow on a first viewing because it’s reasonable to expect more, but clearly Hughes is merely the token female. Well, there’s always Jane Darwell, but she’s out with the mob and more of a man than many of them! Certainly not there to tease the movie star lead.
Fonda’s piercing sharp eyes, even tone and coiled up unpredictability carry the film, despite his character being unable to drive the story as he would years later in 12 Angry Men (the two films make an interesting double-bill in both theme and method). That may of course be the point and it's to the credit of the devious narrative that we focus on him nonetheless. It's an interesting conundrum because the film simply wouldn’t work without him and his consummate performance, not least the jaw-dropping delivery of the ending (note how Wellman obscures Fonda’s famous eyes during that moment).
It's hard to say that any one character does lead the film, emphasising the dangerous and fluid nature of mob-rule. Nevertheless, Dana Andrews quietly almost steals the film right from under Fonda’s nose. He plays the leader of the three accused, along with Francis Ford and a young Anthony Quinn. It is an incredible and varied performance, especially if you’ve seen his usually stoic style in Noir’s such as Laura. With Fonda’s steady hand guiding the film from the shadows, Andrews has room to play every emotion you might expect from a man facing the noose. His pride and terror underline the films’ complicated and disagreeable tone. Fonda sells us The Ox-Bow Incident, and it’s him you’re likely to remember, but Andrews makes us feel the rope tighten.
This is a gorgeous 4K transfer from Arrow, completing another fantastic release under their Academy run and proving again that while Criterion's recent UK releases are more than welcome, they aren't filling a gap. Sometimes HD can accentuate the age of a film, revealing a lack of depth to old fashioned sets. While that is obvious in The Ox-Bow Incident to some degree during the scenes in the clearing, if anything it adds to the charm. Instead, the transfer overall finds tone and detail I haven't appreciated before, particularly in the faces. It's consistent, with a strong contrast throughout and no visible defects.
Author Peter Stanfield features heavily, contributing both a 12 minute introduction and commentaries. The former is enlightening and he puts the film into context. A tough story that can be related to the war and stories from Europe at the time. Also looks into why the Western was coming back into favour at that time. Meanwhile his commentaries are effectively one, but usefully divided into detailed segments via a menu. That makes it very easy to get into and Peter is a very knowledgeable and affable companion. Meanwhile a second commentary features American West historian Dick Etulain along with and William Wellman Jr.
Also included is the trailer and a 45 minute episode of Biography, Henry Fonda: Hollywood’s Quiet Hero, which while old, is still effective. Fonda is one of Hollywood's true greats.