Directed by: William A. Wellman
Written by: Lamar Trotti, based on the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark
Starring: Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn
Black & White, 75 minutes
A rancher is violently attacked and shot in the head. An angry mob forms, vehemently crying for blood. Three men stand accused of a crime they passionately deny. In recent years, William Wellman's The Ox-Bow Incident has been accused of being a product of it's time, flat and dated by today's standards. I can assure you, there are very few films from the 1940's that are as timely and relevant for the Reign of Dubya as this one (The Tipton Three anyone?).
Lamar Trotti's script intelligently focuses the action on two particular situations: the forming of the mob and the carrying out of the mob's will. At the center of this hysteria is (who else) Henry Fonda's Gil Carter. We see from the first frames that Carter is a man who means business. After tossing back a few shots of whiskey he beats the hell out of a man named Farnley (Marc Lawrence), who accuses him and his pal Art (Harry Morgan) of stealing cattle. A few moments later, a man rides into town and saying that a farmer named Kinkaid, a good friend of Farnley's, has been shot, and his cattle stolen. Farnley, still shaken from his fight with Carter, is understandably upset, and he calls for a posse to find the murderer. In spite of some opposition from a few prominent figures, the townspeople band together and hit the trail.
After riding half the night, the mob eventually comes across three men sleeping by a campfire. The three consist of a family man, played by Dana Andrews (Laura), a mysterious Mexican, played by Anthony Quinn (La Strada), and an old timer who can't even remember his name, played by Francis Ford ( brother of director John). They don't necessarily look like murderers, but they'll do. The mob begins to interrogate, and the men admit to having bought cattle from Kinkaid fairly recently. The problem is that they have no bill of sale. Quinn is discovered with Kinkaid's gun, but he swears he found it in the road. The majority of the mob is convinced the men are guilty, they were before they even found them, but there are a few who feel the men deserve a trial. Unfortunately, majority always seems to win, no matter how idiotic or wrong or misaligned they may be.
The strength of this film comes in its own ability not to conform. We aren't given a tidy, feel good ending. This film that takes aim at your gut, and it lands its fair share of blows. On top of that, our hero is not exactly heroic. Fonda has given us some of the noblest individuals in cinema. He's portrayed Abe Lincoln, Wyatt Earp, Clarence Darrow, Juror #8 in 12 Angry Men, and of course Tom Joad, but here he's a little aloof. He wants to do the right thing, but it's only when others make a stand that he follows suit. It's a brave performance, because the audience is waiting on him to rush in and convince the rest of the mob, but it doesn't happen. As disappointing as that may seem to some, it only elevates the film, adding more tension as a result of extreme realism.
Fonda, with his soul piercing eyes, had the uncanny ability to blend ferocity and humility with the utmost ease, and because of this he has a tendency to leave most of his co-stars in the shade, but Wellman gives all the actors equal attention. Dana Andrews is superb here, you feel for him as he pleads for his life, his eyes filled with tears. We see him writing a letter to his wife and children, and it's nothing short of heart wrenching. Jane Darwell (Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath) provides nice contrast as a hellraising old lady who only fuels the mob's fire. Anthony Quinn's performance is a little too wooden for my taste, but in his defense, his character is underdeveloped. All in all, though, it's Fonda who burns in the mind, and this is just another in a long line of performance that practically predated the Method movement that would become popular a decade later with the emergence of Brando, Clift, and Dean.
There is one plot point involving an old flame of Fonda's that halts the film by adding a melodramatic element that is entirely unnecessary, but Wellman and Trotti take time to include other substantial elements, such as an Army Major forcing his son to join the posse, and an African-American preacher whose own brother was lynched years before, that tie up very satisfactorily in the end. Wellman had a very small budget, and the film was shot entirely on soundstages, but Arthur Miller's stark photography does a great job in bringing 1885 Nevada to life, and in evoking the horror in these proceedings. Wellman's direction is tight and confined, and he never lets the camera get in the way of the story. He's smart enough to realize when he has a good thing going.
This film falls short of what it could have been, but for what it is, it's still worth your time. In fact, it should be required viewing, not only for fans of cinema, but for everyone. We can all learn a lesson here. The law may not always work, it may not always be quick, but it's there for a reason, unfortunately many of those responsible for the law tend to forget said reasons. Nearly 65 years after its release, the film still packs a punch. This may be good for us as viewers, but it's terrifying for us as citizens.