The Ox-Bow Incident

1943, Movie, NR, 75 mins

Review

Henry Fonda, Frank Conroy, Jane Darwell
starstarstarstarstar
The finest indictment of lynching ever made, and we're not forgetting LeRoy's THEY WON'T FORGET or Lang's FURY either. THE OX-BOW INCIDENT is a powerful portrait of mob violence that rises to the level of tragedy.

Fonda and Morgan play two travelers who ride into Bridger's Wells, Nevada, a dying town, and head for the local saloon after finishing a cattle drive. Soon thereafter someone races in to announce that a popular local rancher has been shot by rustlers. Although a storekeeper (Davenport) cautions against rash action in the absence of the local sheriff, many locals form a posse anyway. Under the leadership of a pompous ex-Confederate officer (Conroy) who suddenly appears in his old Civil War uniform, the posse rides off. The strangers join the posse largely to keep the townspeople from unfairly suspecting them.

The posse eventually finds three exhausted homesteaders (Andrews, Quinn and Francis Ford) and, although the evidence against them is largely circumstantial, they are convicted of the crime on the spot. The three are given no real trial, just enough time to write farewell letters to loved ones and to "make their peace with God". The men, are of course, innocent, and the memorable finale has Fonda reading aloud the letter Andrews wrote to his family.

Fonda gives a compassionate performance; good work is also done by Darwell, Davenport, Hurst, and Conroy. Quinn only has a small role as one of the victims, but he is terrific as the indignant lynch candidate who is about to be hanged, not for past crimes, but for something he did not do. Wellman's direction of this superb cast is nothing less than awesome; he coaxes subtle performances from some of his players, properly bombastic renderings from others. In keeping with its somber subject matter, the whole film has a gritty, worn-out look, right down to the threadbare costumes on the actors. Much of the credit for the film's tone is due to Miller's outstanding photography, supported by a downbeat score from Mockridge. Although scenes at the beginning and the end of the film offer realistic-looking western exteriors, Wellman insisted that the bulk of the film be shot on a set with painted backdrops, mostly since the bulk of the story occurs at night. On the set he could better control the nuances of lighting he wanted. Some critics complained about the "claustrophobic" look and feel of the picture because of its set-bound image, but it is exactly that atmosphere that helps to create the mood of pervasive doom and maniacal intent of the two dozen "average citizens" to commit a capital crime. leave a comment

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