Friday, February 9, 2018

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

The Ox-Bow Incident (William A. Wellman, 1943)  Guy (Henry Fonda) walks into a bar with his buddy (Henry—nee Harry—Morgan). He just came off the trail and is a might ornery. His girl's left town without a word, he hasn't had a bath in...well, he can't seem to remember...but, the whiskey's good, even if the company ain't. Then the fight happens; before too long, Fonda's character is just full enough of piss and vinegar (and whiskey, which from the looks of the bar, could be the same thing) that he picks a fight with a local tough (Marc Lawrence) using the bar to support him while delivering a nasty double kick to his head, until the barkeep clobbers him with a bottle of inventory which shatters over his thick skull, and sends him (rather blissfully) into the arms of Morgan, who drags him like a sack of potatoes to a waiting cane-chair, choreographed like it had happened before.
Welcome to the rough-and-tumble world of "Wild" Bill Wellman, a director of such sensibilities that you can practically smell the sweat coming off the denizens of Bridger's Wells, Nevada. In a simple scene, Wellman differentiates himself from the more genteel sensibilities of Ford and Hawks, and into his own greasier, meaner, no-nonsense view of the West. He's the better choice to present an immorality tale like The Ox-Bow Incident, about rough, western "justice" being meted out for the murder of a local rancher by a team of cattle rustlers. The Sheriff's out of town, the deputy's itching for action, the local judge is an ineffective blow-hard, and the posse-in-lynch-mob clothing have motivations, diverse but petty, such as false moral rectitude, mean-spiritedness, opportunism, and just plain boredom. Truth to tell, they're a pack of hungry wolves waiting for any prey to abuse.
They find three mena new rancher nobody knows (Dana Andrews), who's had recent dealings with the dead man, an old, demented hand (Francis Ford, John's brother), and a Latino tough (Anthony Quinn) just corrupt enough to know not to play along...with anybody. Lip-service is paid to justice, process, and prayers, but ultimately, like politicians reacting to the #MeToo movement, it's just lip-service; the purpose is to string the three up and get revenge as quickly as possible. In this court by mob-rule, the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence is not as important as the sturdiness of the rope, and waiting for facts just gets in the way of the excitement—it's a necktie party in every sense, except the common one. The cooler heads are seen as weak, obstructing, or just plain kill-joys.
No good can come of it and Wellman (working with Lamar Trotti from Walter Van Tilburg Clark's 1940 novel) writes a case for due process whatever the cost, even if the only thing wasted is time. Vigilance is not the same as vigilantism and the two should be frequently opposed to each other. And if one were to be so foolish to think that Westerns are no longer relevant to the issues of today, you haven't been reading the papers.
This was one of Henry Fonda's favorite films he appeared in (the others being The Grapes of Wrath—also featuring Jane Darwell—and Twelve Angry Men), and in 1998, The Ox-Bow Incident became part of the National Film Registry.

The Ox-Bow Incident mural emblazoning Stage 9 on the Fox lot

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