Friday, September 11, 2015

1943 - The Ox-Bow Incident

Well, look at me. I'm posting again only a couple of weeks after the last one. The only explanation I can come up with is that this awards year is not full to the brim with three-hour epics (I'm looking at you, 1956) so it's been a tad easier to find time to watch them. The majority of 1943's contenders are under two hours, and in fact, the following review is for the shortest of the bunch, clocking in at only 75 minutes!

Here now is our next 1943 Best Picture hopeful...

The Ox-Bow Incident
William A. Wellman
Lamar Trotti
(based on the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark)
Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Mary Beth Hughes, Anthony Quinn, William Eythe, Harry Morgan, Jane Darwell, Matt Briggs, Harry Davenport, Frank Conroy, Marc Lawrence
Academy Awards:
1 nomination
0 wins

I usually like to avoid spoilers in my discussions of these films, but The Ox-Bow Incident is one of those pictures that is extremely difficult to talk about without referencing the climax, so consider yourself warned: spoiler alert!

It's the late nineteenth century and Gil (Fonda) and Art (Morgan) travel into the sleepy town of Bridger's Wells, Nevada. Almost immediately, they get caught up in a local controversy as a young man frantically enters the saloon with news of Larry Kinkaid's murder by some cattle thieves. With nothing else to go on, several townsmen gather to form a posse, intent on finding the culprits and literally stringing them up, lest the law take their time and allow them to slip away, or worse, be given a fair trial. Old man Davies (Davenport) attempts to dissuade the impulsive men - and one woman (Darwell) - from taking the law into their own hands. After unsuccessfully pleading with them to at least wait for the sheriff to return from the Kinkaid ranch, the mob sets off to find their prey. Davies, along with a few other dissenters and the two out-of-towners, tag along in the hopes of talking some sense into the men bent on revenge.

After happening upon three men, including Donald Martin (Andrews), the posse ties them up, preparing to lynch them. With a few pointed questions, the stoic leader of the posse, Major Tetley (Conroy), uncovers some circumstantial evidence that appears to link these men to the murder of Kinkaid, despite their pleas of innocence. Not wanting to seem unreasonable, Tetley agrees to abide by majority rule. Only seven men oppose the hanging, so at dawn, the deed is done. As the satisfied mob heads back to town, they run into the sheriff coming the other way, who reveals the unfortunate truth that Kinkaid is not even dead and the real cattle rustlers have already been apprehended. Oops.

The wordy opening scenes move pretty fast so you've got to pay attention from the outset. And in fact, at only 75 minutes, the entire tale is told from start to finish without wasting a lot of time. It's certainly well-paced and the story is intensely driven and captivating with its singular burning question - will the posse really go through with lynching these probably innocent men? It's edge-of-your-seat stuff right up to the powerful climax.

The film boasts a great array of colourful characters, including a bunch of engaging villainous archetypes. There's the calm and obstinate military man, the crazy laughing goon, the smug vindictive lawman misusing his authority, and plenty of other meanies, too. Facing off against them are the ineffective good guys - the old and wise voice of reason, the mild-mannered man of the cloth, and the son rebelling against his father's peremptory ways.

It's common to feel minor frustration at unreasonable movie characters. I mean, who hasn't yelled at the screen during a horror film when the protagonist decides to investigate a strange noise. On her own. In the dark. In this picture, however, the behaviour of the impulsively unreasonable mob positively makes your blood boil. The main members of the posse are, quite simply, pig-headed hypocrites who believe what they want and are unconcerned with serious fact-checking. This is all the more infuriating with the knowledge that people like this do, in fact, exist ... and in great numbers. And this aggravation arises regardless of how the story concludes. Even if it turned out that the three men did indeed commit the crime, I'd still be incensed by the posse's attitude. You see, it's not about whether what you believe happens to be true. It's about whether it's reasonable to believe what you believe. And even if these guys killed Kinkaid, there wasn't enough justification for the posse to be sure of that. Certainly not so sure that they were comfortable lynching them for it. (Whew. Movies sure have the power to make you feel things...)

It's also worth pointing out the effective final scene in which Gil reads aloud a letter that Martin wrote for his wife once he accepted his inevitable death at the hands of the posse. It's a heart-breaking sequence but the reason I bring it up is the uniquely interesting framing while Gil reads the letter (pictured above). His eyes are covered by the brim of Art's hat, which I'm sure must be a metaphor for something but I can't figure out what exactly. Either way, it's a beautiful shot and very powerful.

Speaking of powerful, Henry Fonda is insanely watchable in a mostly subdued performance. Effective as his sidekick is Harry Morgan (later of M*A*S*H fame) who is inexplicably credited as Henry Morgan. Dana Andrews is compelling as the sympathetic victim. And in fact, the entire ensemble is impressive, each bringing their unique characters to life with intensity. Look out for the Wicked Witch of the West, Margaret Hamilton, as a housekeeper near the beginning.

Despite its powerful screenplay, imaginative direction and persuasive performances, the film was surprisingly only nominated for Best Picture and that's it.

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