Director: William A. Wellman
Screenplay: Lamar Trotti, based on the novel The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark
Starring: Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Mary Beth Hughes, Anthony Quinn
Running Time: 75 minutes
Genre: Western, drama
This film takes the traditional Western movie and turns it into a bleak morality tale, which savagely condemns mob rule and vigilante violence. Set in Nevada, 1885, the film opens with cowboy Gil Carter (Fonda) and his friend Art Croft (Harry Morgan) returning to the small town of Bridger's Wells. The town has been suffering due to large numbers of cattle-rustling incidents, and the inhabitants are resentful and angry. News reaches the town that a popular rancher has been murdered and his herd stolen. Despite the protestations of Carter, preacher Sparks (Leigh Whipper) and elderly store-keeper Davies (Harry Davenport) a posse is soon formed to go after the killers. Carter, Sparks and Davies are worried that the posse will turn into a lynch-mob, and execute any suspects themselves without any trial or due process of law. The three protestors join the posse in the hope of talking them out of any violent action, but it may already be too late.
The studio insisted that this film was shot cheaply on studio sets rather than on location, and this actually benefits the film, because the small studio space makes the film more intimate and claustrophobic than it might have been on an expansive location. There is also very little of the traditional Western action, the film mostly being driven by character and dialogue. Even the setting is different from the traditional oat opera, being mostly set at night, with repeated references to the bitter cold. The characters are well drawn and even minor characters are developed with believable reasons for their actions (or inactions). A haunted looking Fonda gives a great performance as a character who at first appears to be a mindless saloon-brawler but turns out to be one of the voices of conscience.
Packing a lot into it's brief run time, this depicts a shockingly bleak and cynical view of human nature, and marks a turning point for the American Western genre, when it began to grow and develop and turn from romanticised adventure stories into a mature and valid genre which was capable of dealing straight on with mature, adult themes.