A short, yet stern western-noir, The Ox-Bow Incident is an intriguing film, supported by a great ensemble cast and some interesting themes.
William A. Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident, originally released in 1943, overall may be a brief and rather condensed western-noir, however this does not prevent the Henry Fonda-lead crime film from being a thoroughly intriguing and deep exploration of justice. The film tells the story of two drifters (Fonda and Harry Morgan) who arrive in a small town in 1885 Nevada and soon find themselves involved in a posse on the hunt for three suspected murderers and thieves. However when the posse come across the suspects, the group is divided on whether or not they should be lynched for their crimes.
The first third of the film takes a little while to properly get started. The setting and backdrop are a little light on proper development, the majority of the ensemble characters seeming to fill rather cookie cutter and generic roles; there’s the sweet kindly older man, the staunch and gruff working men, the morally correct every-man, and so on. Fonda plays the latter here and does so very well, as he has in other similar roles, Morgan is also a likable presence alongside him and the two have very believable chemistry.
But as the story moves away from the town and into the hunt for the murderers, the films really picks up and develops. We learn a little more about the ensemble and as they interact with Fonda and Morgan, the whole cast displays great chemistry with one another, playing off each other and quipping back and forth. Lamar Trotti’s screenplay works well here for some enjoyable dialogue but also deeper interactions as the posse come across the murderers. Here the film takes on a more serious and sterner approach as the moralities of execution and crime and punishment come into play. Suddenly the story is more engaging and gripping than it was before; we begin to sympathize with the accused murderers and are further drawn in to support Fonda and Morgan, along with several other characters, mainly Arthur Davies (Harry Davenport), Donald Martin (Dana Andrews) and Sparks (Leigh Whipper). All three actors giving fantastic performances.
The questions raised within the film are subtly developed and examined, there’s no heavy-handed approach or overly preachy message to it. The film’s screenplay and direction allow it to appear naturally- it’s something that soon all the characters are faced with and they all find themselves, by the end of the film, questioning their approaches. By the end of it all, we are truly on board with these people and hooked onto every one of their words and all of their actions. The Ox-Bow Incident is undoubtedly a slow burn, despite its short runtime and seemingly quick cycle through the plot, but the questions raised and the morals explored are the true star of the show.
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), directed by William A. Wellman, is available on Blu-ray in the UK by Arrow Films, certificate PG.