The Ox-Bow Incident Review

During the 1940s Henry Fonda starred in four of the greatest American movies of all time, roles that not only made him a screen icon but helped establish the American cinema as an artform. ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’ was the second of these, a tough, noir-Western with an unfashionably complex moral core. Nat Tunbridge reviews the superb Fox Classics DVD of this exceptional film.

William Wellman was a stalwart of old Hollywood, a talented director who gave James Cagney his breakthrough role (in ‘The Public Enemy’) and who became the first director to helm an Oscar-winning movie when ‘Wings’ won for best picture in the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1927. He was by all accounts a ‘man’s man’ who excelled in dramatic stories of men pitted against each other, and he worked with virtually all the leading men of the day, including Robert Mitchum, Clark Gable, James Garner, John Wayne, Henry Fonda and James Stewart. Many of his best films were westerns and although his style had become somewhat dated by the 50s, ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’, made in 1943, is arguably his masterpiece and a classic of the genre.

Nevada. 1885. Roughneck cowboys Gil (Fonda) and Art (Morgan) arrive in the dusty, inconsequential town of Bridger’s Wells. Incensed by the flight of his girlfriend Rose (Hughes), who had promised she would wait for him, Gil starts a fight with local ranch hand Farnley (Lawrence). Their differences are put aside, however, when news comes that a popular local rancher, Larry Kinkaid, has been murdered. Blame is immediately placed on the unidentified cattle rustlers that have been plaguing the town, and an impromptu posse forms. Against the better judgement of some of the town, the posse takes off into the mountains and comes across an innocent homesteader, Martin (Andrews) and his two hands Juan Martinez (Quinn) and Harvey (Ford). The bloodthirsty mob immediately prepares to lynch the trio, despite their protestations of innocence.

‘The Ox-Bow Incident’ begins brilliantly, with the two cowboys riding into the seemingly deserted town and entering the saloon in classic Western style. Counter-intuitively, Wellman switches from a shot of the two men in the saloon to two jarringly intimate close-ups of each of them as they study a painting hanging over the bar. Gil is tense, jaw clenched, a restrained anger playing over his unshaven face. Art is more contemplative, tilting his head with an avian curiosity at the picture, which shows a nubile young woman reclining while a potential suitor watches from the door. The bartender approaches and Gil, ignoring his interrogative ‘Well?’ comments with a surprising bitterness: “That guy’s awful slow getting there.” “I feel sorry for him,” the barman jokes in return, “Always in reach but never able to do anything about it.” Gil is still staring at the painting: “I got a feeling she could do better,” he declares finally. It’s a credit to Fonda that we immediately know he’s not really referring to the painting, even before scripted exposition is brough into play. In fact, it comes as a slight disappointment a few moments later when Gil starts a fight – played for laughs – as it somewhat diffuses the extraordinary atmosphere created by this unusual opening.

The quick establishment of character, the Spartan dialogue and the jarring dramatic gear change from tense drama to violent, farcical humour remind one immediately of John Ford, but Wellman is not attempting to ape another director, simply setting up the rest of the story in his own way. Even if the body of the film doesn’t quite match the striking combination of intensity and subtlety present in its opening, there are moments of this kind of magic throughout, as when one of the condemned men kneels to pray in the face of his looming execution, his figure redeemed by the extraordinary beams of light falling into the glade or, towards the end when – in a superb close-up that hides his eyes – a stricken Fonda reads aloud the letter of one of the wrongly accused men. These are moments of understated dramatic tension that resonate in the mind long after seeing the film.

Indeed a big chunk of the appeal of ‘Ox-Bow’ must go to its cinematographer, the legendary Arthur C Miller. Nominated for Cinematography Oscars no less than seven times, winning on three occasions (for ‘Anna and the King of Siam’, ‘The Song of Bernadette’ and ‘How Green Was My Valley’), Miller was a Fox regular in the 30s and 40s, which is why many of the films in this current Fox Studio Classics DVD collection happen to be shot by him and – in large part – why they still look so damn good even today. A master of the lighting cameraman’s art, Miller worked with King, Kazan, Mankiewicz and, on more than one occasion, John Ford, so needless to say, he knew how to shoot a Western. His work in ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’ is simply gorgeous, a ‘how-to’ manual of how to create a stunning black and white film on a very tight budget, while still serving the story and not distracting the viewer from the action. While doing the screen grabs for this review I was struck again and again by a curious phenomenon: no matter where I happened to pause the movie, the image on the screen was perfect, even if I hadn’t deliberately tried to capture a dramatic scene. Like a master storyteller Wellman and Miller create a constant stream of beautiful, balanced images that perfectly represent, enhance and complement the narrative.

By raving about the compositions, I don’t mean to suggest that it’s a series of beautiful but lifeless still pictures. The camera has great dynamism and one of the joys of watching the film is the sudden, unexpected bursts of movement, tracking backwards from running figures, swooping up to catch a sudden expression or seeming to hover in front of a stricken face. The film’s budgetary limitations are sometimes uncomfortably apparent in obviously false sets and painted backgrounds, but Miller’s camera is a marvel and manages to dignify everything it sees.

Of course, a beautiful picture isn’t much good without great actors, and Fonda is superb in his role, revealing a tough grittiness that one doesn’t usually associate with this period of his work – aspects of Gil can be seen in relation to the brilliant, ruthless Frank he delivered in ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’. Henry Morgan (familiar to many as Col. Potter from the M*A*S*H TV series) is great as his sidekick and there’s even an exceptionally cool cameo from a young Anthony Quinn as a suave Mexican gambler.

Having raved about how this film looks, and knowing it’s part of the Fox Classics Collection, it will come as no surprise for you to learn that it’s also an extremely good-looking DVD. In fact, it looks breathtaking for a film over 60 years old. The image is clear and steady, the blacks deep… it’s beautiful. There’s the occasional very slight instance of print damage but not so you’d notice. A look at the Restoration Comparison makes clear how much effort has gone into the film’s visual presentation.

Again, this is very good considering the age of the soundtrack. The English Stereo track is powerful, dialogue is absolutely clear and Cyril Mockridge’s score – used sparingly – sounds appropriately doomy when it does arise.

Special Features
This being a Fox Studio Classics effort, one can count on worthy extras and ‘Ox-Bow’ features a Commentary, a Henry Fonda biography, Still Gallery and Restoration Comparison.
The Commentary comes courtesy of Dick Eulain and William Wellman Jr. Eulain, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of New Mexico, a specialist on history and literature of the American West, provides valuable background information, comparing the events of the film to both Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s original novel and the realities of the historical period it’s set in. Initially interesting, his commentary becomes somewhat academic as it continues however, and one appreciates the more personal interjections of the director’s son, William Wellman Jnr, who takes us through the development of the project from first pitch to first screening and beyond. It turns out ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’ was one of the most personal films Wellman ever made and the only one he sank his own money into. He had to shoot the film on a very tight budget and it didn’t do great business on release, although critics liked it. It got an Oscar nod for best film (beaten by ‘Casablanca’, so no disgrace there) and was awarded in the same category by the National Board of Review, but it was clearly a film ahead of its time. In 1943 Westerns were typically simple morality tales, fought between ‘white hats’ and ‘black hats’ and the darkness, gritty realism and emotional complexity of ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’ didn’t sit well with audiences (it was also unusual in featuring an Afro-American character as one of its main voices of conscience). In this respect it can be seen as a precursor to the darker, more morally ambiguous westerns of the 50s, most noticeably Anthony Mann’s series of films with Jimmy Stewart.

Like the Audrey Hepburn piece that accompanied ‘How To Steal a Million’,
the Henry Fonda biography, ‘Henry Fonda: Hollywood’s Quiet Hero’ in the special features section of ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’ is taken from the A & E Network’s BIOGRAPHY series and is a similarly professional piece of work that gives an overview of the famous actor, his origins, rise to stardom and status as one of the definitive American male stars of the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood.

The Still Gallery provides some shots giving a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the crew working on the film while the Restoration Comparison will be familiar to anyone who has seen the equivalent feature in any of the other similarly-equipped titles in the Fox Classics range.

A superb film given an excellent treatment on DVD, ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’ is a worthwhile addition to any collection and will be considered essential by anyone who has invested in the other titles in the excellent Fox Classics series.

Nat Tunbridge

Updated: Feb 07, 2005

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