The trouble with creating a masterpiece is sometimes people don’t automatically see it as such.
One example is The Ox-Bow Incident, a 1943 western directed by William Wellman. This film was released during some of the darkest days of WWII and, as a result, it was a box office disappointment. Audiences were in no mood to be reminded of the failings of human nature, and you can’t really blame them.
Fortunately, the film was recognized with an Oscar nomination for Outstanding Motion Picture, and is now considered one of Wellman’s masterpieces.
The Ox-Bow Incident is based on a novel by the philosophical American writer, Walter Van Tilburg Clark. The story takes place in Nevada, in 1885, and tells us What Happens Next when a popular rancher is shot on his own land.
At first, we sympathize with the town’s decision to form a posse. How dare someone shoot our neighbour! Let’s get ’em, boys!
But we soon discover the town’s leaders may not be as keen on justice as they are on other pursuits. A posse provides an opportunity to teach a harsh lesson to a young man, for instance, or provide an outlet to satisfy one’s bloodlust.
It’s not a comfortable film to watch; ten minutes in, you know things are going to end badly. This is Wellman’s doing. He feeds us the narrative in a controlled way, even while events unravel quickly.
Wellman also has a way of torquing scenes with the use of close-ups. His camera forces us to scrutinize characters as they scrutinize each other. Close-ups in this film signify a challenge to, or defiance of, prevailing conditions.
In one scene, we focus on a man (Dana Andrews) who has been arrested by the posse. While the posse waits for the sheriff to arrive in the cold mountain night, the camera isolates Andrews. He watches a woman and a man sitting close together; the man whispers in the woman’s ear and she laughs loudly. This could be a midnight picnic, except it’s not. It’s a prelude to an execution.
The most significant close-up of this film is one of Henry Fonda, and Wellman intentionally hides his eyes from our view.
In this scene, near the end of the film, the men from the posse gather at the saloon. They are silent, glum, drunk.
Fonda opens a letter written by Andrews and, as he begins to read aloud, he leans against the bar, his back towards the others. Fonda’s eyes are hidden by the hat brim of his friend (Harry Morgan). We analyze Morgan’s expression instead, as he stares straight ahead while Fonda reads. Fonda’s voice is gravelly, betraying emotions he is trying to suppress.
Wellman has staged this close-up to force us to concentrate on the letter’s message. There’s nothing else to look at – no decor in the background, no supporting actor fidgeting with a whiskey glass. It’s Fonda and Morgan, and us.
We squirm a little as Fonda reads, because Wellman has brought us uncomfortably close to this letter.
The Ox-Bow Incident is a powerful, haunting film, and we can’t recommend it enough. Once you see it, you’ll agree that it deserves the reputation of a William Wellman masterpiece.
The Ox-Bow Incident: starring Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Mary Beth Hughes. Directed by William A. Wellman. Written by Lamar Trotti. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp., 1943, B&W, 75 mins.
This post is part of the William Wellman Blogathon hosted by Now Voyaging. Click HERE to see the schedule.