THE OX-BOW INCIDENT (1943)
The Ox-Bow Incident is a great story with an important message, and even as a vehicle for that message, the film would have been worthwhile — as many films with "important messages" end up being.
However, there’s something more to The Ox-Bow Incident, which rightfully became one of the most important westerns in the history of American cinema, and certainly not only because of its theme.
The proof: its beauty endures, after lynching and mob-murders have ceased to be a major social problem in America, while it also speaks to societies in which lynching was never a common habit (though, metaphorically speaking, all democratic mass societies include that menace within themselves).
Instead of preaching, The Ox-Bow Incident is played like music for its audience. The tightly composed 75 minutes of film nevertheless is full of textures aligned very carefully with its own rhythm — allegro, largo, andante, then allegrissimo, ending with profound adagio — letting scenes take their time exploring the depths of layers of moral complexities, through broad daylight and the darkness of the night. It has to be tight because of the dramatic escalation of the moral conflicts, even while it needs to take its time to raise its profound moral questions.
Its main portion, the night scenes of mob violence and hysteria, were shot on sound stages. The general assumption may translate this into a limitation due to the film’s extremely low budget, and indeed, the direction is often praised for not making us feel that 'limitation.' But I am not quite sure if I agree with such an assessment (though Arthur Miller's cinematography should rightfully be praised for the feel of the wide open air grandly simulated on stage). My own feeling remains that it was a deliberate choice, the gothic claustrophobia effective in depicting the community entrapped by itself, and maintaining tight control over the actions and the shots, so that the feeling that these people are doomed by their own will becomes stunningly present throughout. The choice to film on a the sound stage comes to seem deliberate. It might also be said that the film couldn’t be remade today, as nighttime location shooting would be the natural choice to execute these scenes, so that even if the movie were deliberately filmed on a sound stage, the artificiality would be too obvious.
Rather, the subtly but effectively maintained silence, as well as the sounds of furies, like the gun shots as Anthony Quinn tries to escape, or Jane Darwell's violent laughter as Dana Andrews tries to prepare for his death, writing down a testament of his conscience, makes the soundscape of the film genuinely rhythmical and complex, textured and dramatic. In addition to which, there’s 'Red River Valley,' played on a simple harmonica, and repeated 3 times in the film; or perhaps the most ingenious touch of all, making the preacher black and introducing black spiritual songs.
All is placed where it should be in the film, extremely rigorously, but never making us feel that it’s stiff or artificial. Instead, the movie weaves together complex facets of humanity, for better and (especially) for the worse. However evil the acts committed are, they are all measures of human behavior. Perhaps the reason why it took decades for the film to obtain its rightful appreciation is because it doesn't even brand mob-killing as 'evil,' but shows it as part of human nature — we may be as wrong as they were.
The narrative devices, deliberately limiting the filmmaker’s palette , and achieving a calibrated simplicity and purity in choreographing human emotions and actions, make 'The Ox-Bow Incident' an allegory of vision and sound as well, of what we see and what we don't see. Actually, that conflict is even at the core of the story, since the townspeople have heard about the murder of Roger Kincade but have never seen it — and within the film we don't even see the cattle allegedly wrestled, but only hear about its branding (which the film also choses not to show).
And of course, the culmination of Wellman’s questioning of what we see and what we hear — hence of the medium itself — is the reading of the letter, when we don't see Fonda's eyes. Essentially the film is making sure that we can’t see 'Henry Fonda reading the letter,' but that we listen to it instead. Fonda's voice becomes just a way to carry what the letter tells, and we listen to human conscience.
With The Ox-Bow Incident, Westerns became a true, autonomous art form. Perhaps it took a while for the world to really appreciate what it is — a genuine piece of art. But today, when people like Clint Eastwood call it the greatest most beautiful western ever made, finally its status becames a justified one, worthy of the efforts and genius poured into it.
And the fact that it was the film that you probably wanted to make the most, and that you made in the way you wanted to (as previously another producer had wanted you to do it as a big technicolor film with May West, not as the stripped-to-the-essence, minimalist film it became) — should always give us filmmakers the courage not to give in when one has one's own vision.
Addendum: Some people mistakenly accuse The Ox-Bow Incident as "Ford imitation" or a film that "Ford should have directed," perhaps because of the casting of Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, and other members from John Ford stock company, or perhaps because of the use of 'Red River Valley' — both elements also featuring in a Fox film of the previous year, The Grapes of Wrath. Of course Ford might have made a fine film out of the same novel as well, but we can hereby confirm that it was a personal project for you, William Wellman, that you even bought the rights, and that you definitely made all the right choices to give it such a perfect immaculate form as cinema.