The seventy-five minutes of The Ox-Bow Incident are some of the finest in cinema. The film is eventually a solemn examination of the human condition, quiet in its observations, with spare lines of dialogue of profound importance. But before this period in the film, which roughly lasts from twenty minutes in until the end, Ox-Bow is a peculiar Western, far ahead of its time.
As Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan (in his Henry days) ride into the small, empty and nameless town, The Ox-Bow Incident establishes what’s going to be one of its major technical achievements. The use of sound–made even more spectacular later, during the scenes filmed on sets–is amazing, from Alfred Bruzlin and Roger Heman Sr. The dialogue in the opening scene–Lamar Trotti’s script, probably the best thing about Ox-Bow (it’s hard to decide what’s better, Trotti’s writing or Wellman’s direction)–the way Fonda and Morgan deliver it, the way the scene plays out, the way Wellman shoots it. It’s indescribable. I’ve seen Ox-Bow before, but I forgot it was so singular.
When the story does advance, it does quickly–the relaxed opening scene, establishing Fonda as the protagonist, is the only one of its kind in the film. After that scene, the film moves to its conclusion without taking any breaks or offering the viewer any relief. Wellman’s composition incorporates background for action and foreground for non-action, with both incredibly important. But it also keeps the viewer constantly busy, the film an active experience.
Trotti’s adapting a novel, so I’m guessing the one unconnected scene is from it. The scene, featuring more backstory for Fonda, doesn’t seem foreign to the film–even though it’s a big, busy scene and the last one before the film enters its final stage–because of that opening scene. Trotti and Wellman establish right off they’re going to do things a certain way and Fonda running into old flame Mary Beth Hughes for four minutes fits into that style.
Then Dana Andrews and Anthony Quinn appear. The film’s about a lynching (the titular incident), with Andrews and Quinn as two of the lynched. It’s hard to describe how the film works from their appearance to the end because it is so singular. For example, Wellman later gives Fonda his biggest scene without showing his face. The storytelling works; delineating it might prove useful for a scholarly article, but certainly not for an informal response.
Both Andrews and Quinn are fantastic, as is Fonda, as is Morgan. The supporting cast–Harry Davenport and Frank Conroy in particular–are also great. Jane Darwell’s performance, after so many sympathetic roles, as a gung ho lyncher is terrifying. Paul Hurst, Dick Rich, William Eythe as well.
For such a short film, Ox-Bow is brimming with content. The way people talk to each other informs on their existing relationships, with Trotti never spending the time to expound. He doesn’t have to… it’s a wonderful script.
I’m trying to think of other amazing moments from Wellman, but after a point, every shot in the film is an amazing moment. Arthur C. Miller’s photography, instead of being constrained by the set shooting, is lush. The depth of each frame captivates.
The film ends on a strange note. Hopeful but resigned. I can’t believe I’d forgotten the film is so remarkable.
Directed by William A. Wellman; screenplay by Lamar Trotti, based on the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark; director of photography, Arthur C. Miller; edited by Allen McNeil; music by Cyril J. Mockridge; produced by Trotti; released by 20th Century Fox.
Starring Henry Fonda (Gil Carter), Dana Andrews (Donald Martin), Mary Beth Hughes (Rose Mapen), Anthony Quinn (Juan Martínez), William Eythe (Gerald Tetley), Harry Morgan (Art Croft), Jane Darwell (Jenny Grier), Matt Briggs (Judge Daniel Tyler), Harry Davenport (Arthur Davies), Frank Conroy (Maj. Tetley), Marc Lawrence (Jeff Farnley), Paul Hurst (Monty Smith), Victor Kilian (Darby), Chris-Pin Martin (Poncho), Willard Robertson (Sheriff), Ted North (Joyce) and Dick Rich (Deputy Butch Mapes).