Slowly but surely, I am being persuaded that Henry Fonda might have been a very good actor after all. I think next to “Once upon a time in the West”, “The Ox-Bow Incident” might just be his best performance.
William Wellman’s film is a tale of a world where rules have been ignored. A farmer has been murdered, and the sheriff is away. Some defend they should wait for him; some defend that a search party should be form and go hunt the killers. The latter group wins, and when three men are found with some of the murdered man’s cattle, which they claim to have bought, and a few other circumstantial evidence. What ensues is a masterpiece of cinema.
Fonda plays Everyman, the man with whom we identify; neither a stranger nor a resident of Ox-Bow, someone passing through with a friend, looking for the woman he loves. But his isn’t the only great performance of the film. Dana Andrews is simply fantastic – actually the two worked very well together, as another of their collaboration, Preminger’s “Daisy Keynon” (1947) with Joan Crawford has an amazing performance from Andrews (and Crawford) and a good one Fonda. But the best of the performances is Harry Davenport’s as the voice of Justice. Davenport is one of those character actors from the studio system days who are in loads of films although you may never be quite sure of which ones. He’s probably best remembered as Dr Meade in “Gone with the Wind”. Here he gets a meatier part, although his is in fact the third main character, his name appears quite low in the credits, way below rising star Anthony Quinn or Mary Beth Hughes (seriously, no idea of who she is…) who has a scene but gets third billing.
The film also had an interesting subplot. A father and son conflict – the father, an authoritarian Southern (although I might be wrong) general from the Civil War, with a not entirely clear past and who takes control of the mob and wants to “make a man” of his son. The son’s portrait is rather interesting – he’s described as a “coward” by himself and by his father, but what’s really at stake here is the proof of his manliness (i.e. he needs to prove he’s straight). Personally, I am slightly inclined to believe he might be indeed gay – the intensity of his father’s suspicions and cruel remarks and his reaction to Dana Andrews when he sees him. But then again, especially in the latter it might just mean he’s a better type of human being than the majority of those around him.
PS - On top of the R1 release, which is probably the best, there's a standalone R2 release of this film in some European countries. However, in the UK is only part of a Henry Fonda box-set which includes "The Grapes of Wrath" and "My Darling Clementine". I picked my copy in Belgium a few weeks ago for a very agreable €5.