Monday, May 28, 2012

Reeling Backward: "The Ox-Bow Incident" (1943)

"The law is slow and careless around here sometimes. And we're here to see it speeded up."
Thus speaks the central villain in "The Ox-Bow Incident," a 1943 prairie morality tale that, in truth, contains no real bad guy. That's because virtually everyone in it is morally compromised in some way. The speaker, a vengeful cowpuncher named Farnley (Marc Lawrence), is simply the most overt about it.

This film is from director William A. Wellman; the more I see his movies, the more I become convinced this largely unheralded figure is one of Hollywood's greatest filmmakers. The screenplay is by Lamar Trotti, whose credits include "Young Mr. Lincoln" and "Drums Along the Mohawk," from Walter Van Tilburg Clark's novel.

It reminded me very much of "12 Angry Men," also starring Henry Fonda, in that it's about the pitfalls of the group mentality applied to a law-and-justice scenario. A bunch of men who are convinced they are doing right eventually come to see that they've been woefully misguided all along. With "Men" it happens before the verdict is rendered, but in "Ox-Bow" the realization doesn't occur until after three men have been wrongly hanged for crimes they did not commit.

The movie is also notable in that the story unspools in more or less real time -- Wellman includes a single fade-out/fade-in to indicate the passage of time. The film essentially only has three scenes: the first where the townsfolk learn of the murder of a local rancher and form a posse; a brief (and mostly unnecessary) interlude where they erroneously chase down a stagecoach; and the confrontation with the accused trio.

At a spare 75 minutes, "The Ox-Bow Incident" has a stripped-down feel, like the narrative has been boiled down to its barest essence.

Interestingly, Fonda is not the central character, nor is there really any protagonist in the story. Fonda plays Carter, a rather surly and hot-tempered local cowboy who gets caught up in the posse mostly out of fear -- he and his partner Art (Harry Morgan) take part because if they did not, they might be suspected of being involved in the cattle rustling and killing of an upstanding rancher named Kincaid.

Carter acts as sort of the nexus of the plot, whose own story is not central to the narrative but a figure around whom all the other characters travel in close orbit.

Carter and Art ride into town, dusty and thirsty, and find not much going on. They sidle up to the bar for some rotgut whiskey, and Carter learns that Rose has suddenly left town. She was perhaps the only unmarried woman in town under the age of 80, and if she was not exactly Carter's betrothed, then certainly he felt promises had been exchanged between them.

Agitated over stories of cattle rustling, Carter starts a fight with Farnley, getting the best of it but then getting knocked out by a bottle over the head from the bartender. Art revives him with a splash of water, explaining that Carter always feels better after a fight, win or lose. Carter grows ill and stumbles into the street to retch his guts out.

Still bent over, he complains to Art: "Holy cow, now I'm gonna have to start all over again!"

Instead, everyone is riled up by the news of the murder of Kincaid and the theft of his cattle. The sheriff is out of town, but the lackadaisical deputy Mapes (Dick Rich) decides to commission a posse. From the beginning it is clear that they're looking for a purpose, a cure for their idleness, more than justice -- that, and the thrill of seeing somebody swing.

The town drunk (Paul Smith) uses a rope to act out a googly-eyed, tongue-lolling imitation of a man being hanged. It's funny the first time he does it, less so the second, and positively chilling when he does it in front of the accused to taunt them.

Perhaps the film's one major flaw is a chance encounter with a stagecoach along the trail. Stupidly, the posse gives pursuit, instigating the stagecoach hands into shooting Art in the arm. After running them down they learn the coach contains Rose and her new husband, a rich and snooty type from San Francisco. It seems like this sequence is setting up the narrative for more developments, but we never see the newlyweds again.

While the scene has its own momentum, plot-wise it's dead weight.

The most enthralling section is the quick capture and long "trial" of the three men, including Dana Andrews as Martin, the leader, and Anthony Quinn as Juan Martinez. Martin insists they bought the 50 head of cattle from Kincaid wish cash, although they lack a bill of sale. After trying to escape, Juan is also found to be carrying Kincaid's fancy engraved pistol. The third member of the accused is a feeble-minded old man.

The posse includes a large cast of characters. Beyond Farnley, the self-appointed leader is Tetley (Frank Conroy), a former Confederate major who still wears his gray battle uniform 20 years after the end of the war. Tetley is imperious, with a thick veneer of polite gentility masking his harsh, uncompromising ways. He mostly comes along as a way to instill some manhood in his gentle-minded son (William Eythe).

Jane Darwell, forever Mrs. Joad from "The Grapes of Wrath," has a disturbing turn as a hard-bitten woman who's as bloodthirsty as any of the men. She has several scenes where she cackles with glee at the plight of the three accused men, and it's positively vile.

The group also includes Davies (Harry Davenport), an elderly store owner who tries unsuccessfully to have the men brought back to town for a trial, and Sparks (Leigh Whipper), a negro preacher who acts as the moral conscience of the group.

Once the interrogation gets underway, there's a doomed, haunting feel to the movie, as the audience surely knows how things will end. Martin tries to reason with his captors, then pleads with them, and finally begs them. This draws a sharp retort from Darwell's character to "take it like a man."

The film ends on a bit of a false note, as Carter reads the letter Martin has written to his wife and children, asking them to forgive the men who murdered him in the name of justice. The language is rather highfalutin for a humble farmer, and it's doubtful any man not a living saint could summon that sort of big-hearted perspective a few minutes before is to die for a crime he had nothing to do with.

Still, "The Ox-Bow Incident" is a riveting story about how right and wrong are sometimes hard to distinguish, and why laws are necessary to keep justice out of the eager hands of the unruly mob.

3 stars out of four

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