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Ox-Bow Incident, The
Based on the novel of the same name written by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, director William Wellman's 1943 cinematic adaptation of The Ox-Bow Incident might look like a western on the surface. It does, after all, take place in the American west and revolve around a posse of cowboys. Once you get through it, however, it's clear that this is much more of a character drama and a morality play than it is a traditional cowboy picture. It's also a damn good film that's absolutely worth revisiting, having lost none of its power or its poignancy over the seven decades plus since it was first made.
The story follows two cowboys, Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan), who ride into town and hit up the local bar for a drink. Things start off okay until Gil gets into a scrap with a local. From here, they learn from some of the other patrons that a local rancher, one of the most God fearing men in town, has been shot dead and his cattle have been stolen. The victim's best friend, Jeff Farnley (Marc Lawrence) and a former army man named Major Tetley (Frank Conroy) set out to put together a posse. Tetley even going so far as to force his meek son, Gerald (William Eythe), to come along. It seems the three suspects were seen out in the mountains recently, and before you know it, despite the protests of the local judge (Matt Briggs), a whole bunch of angry people have ridden out of town with itchy trigger fingers. The sheriff is out of town, which leaves Deputy Butch Mapes (Dick Rich) in charge, and he has no problem deputizing the lot of them.
Carter and Croft go along, and witness the mob almost destroy a horse and carriage carrying his ex-flame, Rose (Mary Beth Hughes), recently wed to a fancier, wealthier man who is clearly nonplussed by the fact that his pretty new bride recognizes this rough and tumble cowboy. Eventually the three suspects are found: an older man they call Dad (Francis Ford) who may or may not be suffering from dementia, a younger Caucasian man named Donald Martin (Dana Andrews) who wants insists they are innocent, an a shifty Mexican named Juan Martinez (Anthony Quinn) who just so happens to have the victim's pistol on him. Seven of the men, Gil and Art included, protest, but the posse will see that justice is served, consequences be damned.
Briskly paced at seventy-five minutes in length, The Ox-Bow Incident was made on a modest budget using studio sets more often than actual locations, but it's so well done most won't take issue with that. And in its own way, those sets wind up giving certain scenes an unintentionally by no less effective gothic atmosphere. This makes the film's big finale all the more chilling, what with the shadows of the trees surrounding the camp where the three accused men are accosted looming large over the human characters. The black and white camerawork taking on an almost chiaroscuro look during some of these scenes, it can be quite striking.
Performances are fantastic here. Frank Conroy is all blustery pride and ego as one of the main men out to lunch these men. It's interesting to see how his character is often times responsible for talking some of the other men, less confident in their convictions, to go along with it all. He's great in the part, as is Marc Lawrence, whose character in many ways is just as culpable. Francis Ford plays ‘Dad' really well too. He's believably confused when he and his companions are set upon, and you can't help but feel bad for him. Anthony Quinn is completely devious in his part, but at the same time, he's not wrong. He knows exactly what these men are up to know and he knows, more than the others, why. Dana Andrews is superb, his character is legitimately sympathetic and while he handles what befalls him with dignity, it's a heartbreaking role that the talented actor seems very natural in. Henry Morgan is also very strong here, but it's Fonda who stands out. The top billed thespian uses his unassuming style to, like the others in the cast, create character that is as memorable as he is believable. His character is understandably nervous about much of what he goes through and that really comes through here, but there are also moments of bravery and nobility for Gil and Fonda really covers the whole range here with class.
Ultimately the talent assembled both in front of and behind the camera combine their abilities to result in a story well told. The film makes some valid points about the mob mentality that tends to arise so easily and so quickly when tragedy strikes (and sometimes even when it doesn't). It's very different than most westerns made around the same time. Where many of this film's ilk were focused on optimism and the good guys winning the day, this is a serious and dark film with no clearly defined heroes to cheer for or over the top villains to hiss at. The message here is hard to miss, and when it comes time for Fonda's character to read another character's last words, the focus is not on the actor (his face is obscured), but on the words. It's not so much a camera trick as it is a point of emphasis.The Blu-ray:
The Ox-Bow Incident receives a new 4k scan for this release, and is presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition in its original 1.33.1 fullframe aspect ratio. The original negative for this film is lost so this new scan was done from a dupe negative, the best available option, and it look good if soft. Contrast is nice, there's very little print damage and black levels are pretty strong. Some shots do show better detail than others but texture and detail are less pronounced here than you might expect it to be. Although the movie and the extras are presented on a 25GB disc there aren't any compression problems nor is there any obvious edge enhancement. This looks good in a lot of ways, it's just soft.Sound:
An English language DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track gets the job done without any trouble. There are no noticeable issues with any hiss or distortion while dialogue stays clean, clear and nicely balanced. Sound effects have good punch to them, you'll notice this when Quinn's character tries to escape, and the score has decent presence and depth to it. For an older mono mix, this is quite impressive. No alternate language audio or subtitle options are provided.Extras:
Extras mostly duplicate what was on the Fox DVD from 2004 and start off with a commentary track from western film experts Dick Eulain and William Wellman Jr.. This is a well put together scene specific talk that covers pretty much everything that you'd want it to. There's talk about the source material that the film was based on, some interesting observations about how certain characters make certain statements in the film and lots of insight into the subtleties of various performances. They also talk up the directing style employed in the film and offer up lots of interesting trivia about the cast and crew that were involved in the film. Additionally Wellman offers some insight into his father's career and thoughts on this particular entry in his filmography. This is well paced and very interesting.
Additionally, the disc also includes a forty-five minute biographical documentary on leading man Henry Fonda. Titled Henry Fonda: Hollywood's Quiet Hero this piece from 1997 does a fine job of detailing the actor's life and times, covering not only his family life and his humble beginnings but of course his work on stage and screen as well. There are plenty of interviews here with those who worked with him and lots of pertinent clips from various films he appeared in too. This is quite well done and a very nice addition to the disc.
Aside from that we get a two minute restoration demo showing what went into cleaning up the film in 2002, a trailer for the feature, trailers for a few other Kino western titles, static menus and chapter selection.Final Thoughts:
The Ox-Bow Incident is an excellent film. It's moving, it's powerful, it's suspenseful and while its modest budget is clear in some of the sets and set pieces, the beautiful performances and fantastic direction make it easy to look past that. Kino's Blu-ray presents the film in a soft but otherwise nice looking transfer that definitely surpasses the previous DVD release, provides a nice lossless audio track and carries over all of the extras without bringing anything new in that department aside from a few bonus trailers. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.