The Ox-Bow Incident (1942)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5

USA, 1942Screenplay by , based on the novel by Cinematography by Produced by Lamar Trotti.  Music by Production Design by , Costume Design by Film Editing by .

Henry Fonda and his buddy roll into a dusty western town looking for Fonda’s girlfriend, and are devastated to learn that she gave up waiting for him and married someone else. While drinking away their sorrows, news comes in to the saloon that an esteemed member of the community has been murdered on his ranch and a great deal of his cattle stolen. Immediately riled up and ready to kill the murdering thieves, the victim’s friends put together a posse that rides out into the wilderness, with the two strangers brought along to witness the justice they plan to deliver with swift precision. The posse finds three men camping in the wilderness who are assumed to be the culprits: as a mild-mannered farmer who has just purchased cattle from the deceased but has no bill of sale, accompanied by a weak-minded old man (Francis Ford) and a fiery Mexican () who insists he cannot speak English. Tensions rise high as conclusions are jumped to and guilt is presumed, and before you know it there are nooses hanging from a tree as the men beg to prove their innocence before the final sentence is carried out. Shamelessly allegorical as a tale of human fear and American social prejudices, the film is also incredibly precise and, thanks to William Wellman’s top-flight direction, breathtaking from beginning to end. You can smell screenwriter Lamar Trotti pointing fingers almost from the beginning, which means you know how it’s going to end, but the relatively short running time (about 75 minutes) is an intelligent choice that suits the unambiguous nature of the storytelling. Fonda is exceptional as the flimsy moral centre of the story, principled but at times weak-willed in the face of treacherous uniform thinking, a prototype for his role in Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men fourteen years later.

Academy Award Nomination:  Best Picture

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