The Ox-Bow Incident
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Great Westerns, like all genre films worth their salt, are meticulously structured, and they feature a pretty short list of archetypal characters. It's accepted wisdom that "the lone gunman" and "the stranger with a secret" belong to the Old West, but such conceits are often co-opted to drive other kinds of pictures. Taxi Driver (1976) and Star Wars (1977), for instance, are direct descendants of John Ford's masterpiece, The Searchers (1956), and scores of tough-cop movies feature nothing more than gunslingers who prowl the town cleaning up corruption, just like the mustached sheriff did all those years ago. You can sense the frontier in them, even if it's sometimes drenched in neon. William Wellman's claustrophobic Western, The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), on the other hand, actually seems to have inspired Sidney Lumet's courtroom drama, 12 Angry Men (1957)!
Henry Fonda stars as a man who rides into an unfamiliar town and ends up witnessing an exceptionally ugly incident. When a rancher has apparently been murdered by a cattle rustler, a lynch mob sets out to seek "justice." When two suspects (Anthony Quinn and Dana Andrews) are gathered, the men swear that they're innocent. But mob rule, lead by a sadistic Army officer (Frank Conroy), prevails. A lynching does, in fact, take place, but the reading of a letter at the end of the film establishes whether or not the now-dead men were actually murderers. This story is played out in claustrophobic detail, with the various mob members coming to terms with their actions in such an intense situation...just as the conflicted jurors do in 12 Angry Men.
It takes a lot of chutzpa to shoot an almost completely inert Western, and Wellman had to do a lot of convincing to get The Ox-Bow Incident off the ground. The director had wanted to adapt Walter Van Tilburg Clark's novel for the screen for years and he harangued Fox production head Darryl Zanuck until the mogul finally caved in. Wellman pointed out that he had successfully delivered social messages in the past, in such well-received films as The Public Enemy (1931) and A Star Is Born (1937). But Zanuck was concerned that the American public wasn't ready for a film that centered on lynching. Zanuck relented when Wellman happily agreed that he would also direct two far-less adventurous pictures for the producer- Thunder Birds (1942) and Buffalo Bill (1944).
Actually, Wellman had discussed making The Ox-Bow Incident in 1940, with producer Harold Hurley. But Hurley had a completely different sort of film in mind, one that would revolve around Mae West as a saloon hostess! When Hurley left Paramount, he sold Ox-bow's rights to Wellman for $6,500. "I bought the property from Harold Hurley," he later said, "after he had gotten into some sort of beef with the big boys and was relieved of his job...then I went to all the producers for whom I had worked and got turned down. Zanuck was the only one with the guts to do an out-of-the-ordinary story for the prestige, rather than the dough."
Some viewers had trouble with the fact that, although the last half of The Ox-Bow Incident is set outdoors, it obviously takes place on a soundstage. The mountains in the background, for instance, are clearly of the painted variety. Luckily, the intense performances and Wellman's reliance on close-ups of his actors' faces distract us from this obvious flaw, and the film remains a powerful viewing experience.
Directed by: William A. Wellman
Producer: Lamar Trotti
Screenplay: Lamar Trotti (based on the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark)
Cinematography: Arthur Miller
Editing: Allen McNeil
Set Design: Thomas Little and Frank E. Hughes
Costume Design: Earl Luick
Makeup: Guy Pearce
Cast: Henry Fonda (Gil Carter), Dana Andrews (Donald Martin), Mary Beth Hughes (Rose Mapen), Anthony Quinn (Juan Martinez), William Eythe (Gerald Tetley), Harry Morgan (Art Croft), Jane Darwell (Ma Grier), Matt Briggs (Judge Daniel Tyler), Harry Davenport (Arthur Davies), Frank Conroy (Maj. Tetley), Marc Lawrence (Farnley), Victor Kilian (Darby).
by Paul Tatara