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Ox-Bow Incident, The (1943), Or 28 Angry Men


An incident you need to get involved with
An incident you need to get involved with

Genre: Western Crime Drama

Starring: Henry Fonda (12 Angry Men • Once Upon a Time in the West), Dana Andrews (LauraThe Best Years of Our Lives)

Directed By: William A. Wellman (The Public EnemyA Star Is Born)

Overview: When a Deputy gathers a posse to find and hang the murderers of a cattle rancher, the question of justice versus vengeance causes strife among the group.

Feel free to click here to skip the spoiler bit at the beginning.

This paragraph is strictly for those who’ve seen the film, who never plan on seeing the film, or who don’t mind every hook, line and twister being ruined before they see it (you people are weird)...
Click here to skip the spoiler bit.

With a film is as tight as The Ox-Bow Incident, it’s easy to find the one (or two) niggling mistakes that would have kept it from being perfect. Firstly - and apparently a classic film flub moment - is the shot where Major Tetley (Frank Conroy), when confronted with his own particular brand of evil, steps into a room, closes the door and fires a shot, taking his own life. The door then opens before the shot cuts, as though he were still alive. A filmmaker friend of mine posited that when editing celluloid, a dissolve requires some extra frames of film at the end of the shot. It is then marked with a grease pencil showing which frames dissolve into which frames from the new shot. If this was simply a case of a missed dissolve in the editing room, it would explain why the shot went on almost exactly half a second too long.

But the real issue I had, or rather the only issue I had, was one little part of one little scene: once the posse has made the decision to hang the cattle-rustling murderers, they get on their horses to leave. Just then the sheriff arrives, a minute too late, to tell them that they have unlawfully hung innocent men. There, by the swinging bodies, the sheriff has his too-late-a-Deux-Ex-Machina lecture. Had this sheriff’s scene taken place once these false enforcers of justice had gotten to town, in front of the folks they live and work with; had it happened after the posse had had a day’s ride home, with a few lines to show how the pleasure of their justice had sunk in; had this happened in a more realistic time and place that was less theatrical, well I’d have been hard pressed to call The Ox-Bow Incident anything but perfect cinema.

Turns out the author of the novel actually wrote it that way, and the suicide played out a little differently as well.

just seeing these screencaps makes me want to see it again RIGHT NOW!
Just seeing these screencaps makes me want to see it again RIGHT NOW!

There can't be any such thing as civilization unless people have a conscience, because if people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience?

I’ve seen my fair share of Westerns and plenty more Noir I suspect, but I dare say that The Ox-Bow Incident is a beautiful mix of the two. There is no doubt that a story about cattle-rustling in a dusty 1885 town where a murderer is chased by a posse plants The Ox-Bow Incident firmly in the Western genre. But The Ox-Bow Incident is rife with streaks of Noir, including frequent use of high-contrast, low-key lighting, symbolic expressionist cinematography, characters with a muddied sense of right and wrong, and a plot rich with darkness. With all that and a gloriously written little plot, how could I not love The Ox-Bow incident?

Let me tell you a little about it to inspire you to love it too: A couple of strangers (Henry Fonda, Harry Morgan) wander into town and catch wind that cattle-rustling is starting to become a real problem. The locals even suggest that the strangers might have a hand in it. After a quick and rousing fist-fight, an agitated young cowboy comes into the saloon talking about the murder of a local cattle rancher. A posse is quickly formed, but with the Sheriff out of town, it’s the deputy who unlawfully deputizes them. The Judge is quite clear that the posse has no lawful authority to hang anyone, or do any justice aside from bringing the suspects back for trail. Fearing further accusations, the strangers join up, and the posse of 28 head out to find the murderers.  

First he won't talk. Now he talks too much.

The performances by Henry Fonda is as expected, perfectly strong yet subtle. Seeing a young Harry Morgan - of Colonel Potter from “M*A*S*H” fame – was a pleasant surprise, as was the role of Anthony Quinn and William Eythe. Of course, without a doubt Dana Andrews in the role of Donald Martin, surrounded and accused cattle-rustler and murderer, might even have outperformed Fonda. I said earlier that one of the best aspects of The Ox-Bow Incident is the story, vague and with a muddied morality, but it’s the script that shines brightest. With believable yet poetic dialogue clearly taken from the Walter Van Tilburg Clark novel of the same name, The Ox-Bow Incident is brilliantly written, with rich characters who each have differently-sized crosses to bear.

At a curt 75 minutes, The Ox-Box Incident tells its story without dragging on, keeping a constant tension and vigilant focus until the credits – credits that let you know there’s War Bonds on sale at this theater.


Performance: 8 Cinematography: 9 Script: 9 Plot: 9 Mood: 9

Overall Rating: 88% (Let The Drama Happen)

If you haven’t seen 12 Angry Men yet, watch it soon after The Ox-Box Incident, or vice versa. You’ll find an interesting, even amusing parallel – that’s why I’ve been calling The Ox-Box Incident '28 Angry Men'.

Man, I need more Henry Fonda in my life.

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