The Ox-Bow Incident

Posted on June 28th, 2011 in 1940s, Westerns, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, William Wellman, Dana Andrews by Colin

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The western is genre that often gets a raw deal in the image stakes. And it’s not just a matter of waning box-office popularity in recent times. It’s rarely afforded the respect that other genres seem to court so easily and instead finds itself weighed down by the notion that it’s somehow unsophisticated. The term oater is applied, I’ve used it myself, in an affectionate way, yet it carries a certain air of condescension when you stop and think about it too. I guess the stereotype of uncouth figures riding horses, firing guns and chasing Indians is such a strong one that it’s managed to sideline the genre in the minds of many people. The paradox is that the western is actually one of the richest forms of cinema around. Leaving aside the frequently breathtaking visuals, the setting offers the opportunity to tell an almost unlimited range of stories and explore as many themes as it’s possible to imagine. The vast geographical expanses and the absence (or at best the bare rudiments) of civilization create a kind of nearly blank canvas onto which a skilled filmmaker can paint, with both bold and subtle strokes, whatever he likes. William Wellman was certainly highly skilled and his westerns are never less than interesting, and usually challenging too. The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) is a powerful and memorable piece of work that stays with you and is one of those films that proves the western is capable of being not only an entertainment but an intellectual stimulant as well.

The plot is a simple one and it’s that lack of complexity in the storytelling that’s one of its greatest strengths. The film has a moral point to impart and too much narrative trickery would only be a distraction and water down the central message. Events begin to unfold in a little backwater settlement where the neighbouring ranchers have been struggling with the perennial problem of cattle rustling. When a youngster comes racing into town to breathlessly announce that one of their own has been apparently murdered and his livestock taken a tragic chain reaction is set in motion. The jaded and bitter populace experience disbelief and outrage and are teetering on the edge, poised to ride out and hunt down like animals the alleged killers of their friend. For a brief moment, it looks like reason and decency may prevail as the aged storekeeper Davies (Harry Davenport) appeals to their better nature. But this is not to be - ex-soldier Tetley (Frank Conroy) soon turns the townsfolk back to their base instincts, and a rag-tag posse is formed. Not wanting to draw the ire of the town upon themselves, two cowboys, Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan), reluctantly join the eager hunting party. It’s not long before the posse cut the trail of three men (Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn and Francis Ford) who seem to fit the bill of the murderers. From this point on the movie becomes a kind of ethical struggle between the ineffectual Davies and the implacable Tetley for the souls of the posse members, with the fate of the three captives hanging in the balance.

Trapped in a moral no man's land - Henry Fonda in The Ox-Bow Incident.

The Ox-Bow Incident is based on the novel of the same name by Walt Van Tilburg Clark and, although it’s been quite a few years since I read the book, I recall it as being a pretty faithful adaptation. Wellman’s direction captures the heavy, moody and ultimately tragic tone of the novel very well. There aren’t many true exterior scenes, most of the film seeming to have been shot on sets, and this (along with the high contrast photography) helps to pile on the sense of claustrophobia and doom. While the outcome is fairly predictable, the director still maintains the tension and, crucially, that isn’t lost even with repeated viewings. In fairness, a lot of that comes down to the performances too; Dana Andrews, as the leader of the suspected murderers, was billed below Henry Fonda but his work plays a large part in the success of the movie. His initial disbelief and growing desperation at the nightmare situation he finds himself in is built steadily. He did a fine job of conveying an awkward mix of fear and nobility that positively demands the sympathy of the viewer. In a sense, Fonda plays something of a supporting role in this one, only taking centre stage at a few points. Perhaps his best moment is in the saloon at the end when he reads Andrews’ letter to his illiterate friend. The letter itself is a powerful and emotive one that expertly outlines the author’s twinned concepts of justice and conscience. Fonda’s delivery of the words, as Wellman shot him in extreme close-up - partly obscured at first and then full face - is perfectly timed and enunciated to maximise their impact. However, for long stretches, he’s portraying the confused man in the middle, caught between the opposing ideals of Tetley and Davies. It’s this conflict that’s at the heart of the picture: how reasonable and civilized men can be browbeaten into submission, how the cult of personality can sway the masses and turn them into an unthinking mob, bereft of ethics and robbed of conscience. It’s both an indictment of the failings of the law - the sheriff has left town, the judge is a procrastinator, and the deputy is little more than a barbarian - and a warning that that same law is all we have to prevent our descent into inhumanity.

The R1 DVD of The Ox-Bow Incident from Fox is an excellent presentation of the film; there’s hardly any damage to be seen, the detail level is fine, and the crisp image has the kind of strong contrast necessary for this type of movie. There’s also a fine selection of extras: a commentary track by William Wellman Jr and Dick Eulain, a biography of Fonda, and a gallery  of images. This title is due for a Blu-ray release by Koch Media in Germany in August. Seeing as the extras are to be replicated it’s reasonable to expect that the same film elements will be used, therefore a first class transfer should be on the cards. As I said in the intro, The Ox-Bow Incident is a good example of a thinking man’s western, yet for all that, it never loses sight of the fact that it has to entertain and grip the viewer too. A superb film.

Yellow Sky

Posted on September 12th, 2010 in 1940s, Westerns, Richard Widmark, Gregory Peck, William Wellman by Colin

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Ok, so I’ve taken a break from this thing for a while now. I’ve generally found that I need to take a step back from time to time and allow myself a chance to recharge the batteries before starting anew. My last post was on a western, and my latest one is also another oater - for the sake of continuity if nothing else. Yellow Sky (1948) is a typically stylish William Wellman movie that trades on those perennial themes of greed and honour.

The film opens with a bank raid in a small town and concludes, with a quirky twist, in that same town. However, the robbery plays only a small part in the story; it’s the events that it leads to that form the core of the movie. Stretch Dawson (Gregory Peck) is the laconic leader of a band of outlaws who think they’ve just made an easy killing. While their initial getaway appears to have been clean there is a troop of soldiers on their trail, and the outlaw gang find themselves forced onto a barren and punishing expanse of salt flats in an effort to elude capture. From this early stage the first cracks appear in the group. Stretch is the acknowledged boss but his authority begins to be challenged by Lengthy (John Russell) and especially by Dude (Richard Widmark). As these men haul themselves painfully across the hellish landscape they are driven to the very limits of human endurance. Just as they are about to succumb to the effects of exhaustion and dehydration they stumble into the abandoned former mining town of Yellow Sky, and this is the point at which the story becomes most interesting. The old ghost town is not all it seems - for one thing it’s not strictly a ghost town at all. There are two inhabitants, an old half-crazed prospector and his daughter ‘Mike’ (Anne Baxter). Even in their weakened state the outlaws are not so dumb as to believe these two are living there for the good of their health. Putting two and two together, they decide that there’s only one reason anyone would choose to live in a dead town - gold. What remains to be seen is how far each individual is prepared to go in order to satisfy his craving for riches, and whether or not the notion of honour among thieves has any basis in truth. Like all the best westerns, it raises questions about one’s word of honour and, in this case, if that has any value for those who live outside the law.

Now where have I seen this before?

William Wellman’s direction offers a lesson in style, utilizing close-ups, long shots, deep focus, shadows and high contrast. There’s also an especially notable shot down the smoothly rifled barrel of a gun (see pic. above) which foreshadows the famous 007 pre-credits sequences. I’d also like to mention the climactic shootout between Peck, Widmark and Russell that takes place in the gloomy ruins of the town saloon - all the gunplay is unseen by the audience with only the bloody aftermath revealed. The location photography is another positive feature, with the inhospitable Death Valley occupying the first half before the action moves to Lone Pine for the scenes around the titular town. When looking at the characters, the first thing that jumps out is that every single one is known only by a nickname from beginning to end - the sole exceptions being Peck and Baxter, whose full names are revealed to the viewer. Peck handled his leading role competently as the reluctant hero who eventually finds a kind of redemption. John Russell and Richard Widmark make for a worthy couple of adversaries, the former consumed by pure animal lust and the latter with a hunger for wealth and the power to visit retribution on those he feels have slighted him in the past. Widmark in particular is the epitome of villainy, still at that stage in his career when he tended to get typecast as nasty pieces of work for the hero to vanquish. Anne Baxter’s role called for her to be a kind of self-sufficient tomboy who still remains sexually provocative. To her credit, she managed this balancing act and emerged as a fully rounded character that you can believe in. Throughout the film she proves herself the equal of the male cast members and her only concession to the traditional image of femininity comes at the very end when she dons a frivolous little hat that Stretch has brought her as a gift.

The R1 DVD from Fox presents Yellow Sky in a handsome full frame transfer that’s clean and sharp for the most part. Extras on the disc consist of galleries of advertising material and a selection of trailers. The film itself is absorbing and well paced and it was only at the end that I realized how little violence is present, and how even that takes place off screen. This is one of those late-40s westerns that helped usher in the more complex works that dominated the following decade. Recommended.

Westward the Women

Posted on April 2nd, 2010 in 1950s, Westerns, Robert Taylor, William Wellman by Colin

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Trailblazing epics depicting the dangers and hardships that went hand in hand with the expansion of the frontier are far from uncommon among westerns. Westward the Women (1951) fits comfortably into that category, but there’s one important difference that sets it apart from others of that ilk: this movie tells its tale from an almost exclusively female perspective. This fact alone means that the film is pretty much unique; there have, of course, been other examples of westerns that focused on women, but they tended to be more of the exploitation or novelty variety. Westward the Women is certainly no exploitation picture, instead it’s a gritty attempt to celebrate the courage and the trials experienced by those early pioneer women, without whom the west could not have advanced.

The plot is a fairly simple one, essentially being a chronicle of a pre-Civil War overland trek. It’s 1851 and California landowner and visionary Roy Whitman (John McIntire) has realised that, despite having overcome a hostile land and prospered, his dreams will amount to nothing if there are no women to pair off with his settlers. In order to address this problem he hires Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor) to assist him in first recruiting 140 mail order brides, and then escorting them on the gruelling trip from Chicago all the way back to California. The women who make up this matrimonial caravan are a disparate and, in some cases, a desperate bunch. The film doesn’t fully analyse the reasons why these women would readily agree to subject themselves to the harshest of conditions and potentially fatal circumstances just to marry a man they’d never so much as laid eyes on. For the most part, they are looking for a change in their lives and a new beginning( one has gotten herself pregnant out of wedlock, another is a widow, and there a couple of former good-time girls), and that’s about as deep as it goes. The full extent of the task ahead of them doesn’t really become apparent until the dozen or so men Whitman has hired decide to desert after Wyatt’s brand of iron discipline leaves two of their number dead. From this point on there are only four men left (Wyatt, Whitman, a comedic Japanese cook and a green youth) and the women must put aside their femininity and work harder than any man in their efforts to overcome the myriad obstacles the wilderness throws at them. Before they reach their promised land their numbers will be whittled down by accidents, nature and hostile Indians. However, this pruning simply stiffens their resolve and, by the time they reach the end of the trail, those who have survived emerge stronger than ever. In fact, it’s only at the very end that any concession to sentimentality is made - the surviving women meeting their selected partners to the accompaniment of the first notes of music heard since the opening credits rolled.

Robert Taylor, after handing out his own brand of frontier justice, in Westward the Women.   

William Wellman was one of the hardest driving, most demanding and macho directors working in Hollywood. This was a guy who quit acting because he felt it was too soft and no fit profession for a man. Bearing all this in mind, it may seem surprising that he was able to produce a film that was so celebratory of the achievements of women. Of course his hard-bitten outlook is stamped all over the movie, and he has absolutely no qualms about killing off just about any of the characters. While the death toll is fairly high there isn’t an enormous amount of onscreen violence - the big Indian attack takes place while Wyatt is away chasing after the runaway, firebrand Frenchwoman that he finally falls for - and it’s frequently the tragic aftermath that the viewer gets to see. At times the film becomes seriously grim and there are one or two moments that are actually quite shocking, though I don’t intend to spoil it for anyone by identifying them. Nevertheless, Wellman knew his trade well enough to realise that he had to toss in the odd moment of comedy to avoid proceedings becoming relentlessly dour. The least successful of those lighter moments were provided by Henry Nakamura’s Japanese hash slinger and general dogsbody. Much more effective was the imposing Hope Emerson, in a role that was in complete contrast to the kind of threatening ones she was frequently associated with. Robert Taylor also did some excellent work as the hard as nails trail boss who knows that he must push everyone to the limits of their endurance if they are to have even a slim chance of survival. The character of Wyatt grows along the way though, going from a kind of contemptuous dismissal of the green females he has to look out for to deep admiration for the courage and determination these same charges display time and again. There is a romance along the way between Taylor and Denise Darcel, though it’s a hard edged affair too - he even gives her a crack of the bullwhip at one point! All the women in the supporting parts were quite satisfactory, although the majority of their characters were only developed very slightly. I don’t believe that needs to be too heavily criticised though as the scale of the story and the constraints of the running time (just a little shy of two hours) meant deeper analysis was impractical.  

Westward the Women is currently only available on DVD in R2, and there are two choices. There are editions out in both France and Spain from Warner Brothers. I have the French disc (chances are the Spanish release is from the same master) and the transfer is mostly pretty good, academy ratio and not much in the way of damage. There are moments when the image looks a little soft but nothing too distracting. There’s no extra content whatsoever and you get a choice of English or French audio - subtitles are optional with the English track. This is a good western from a director with a respectable pedigree in the genre (Wellman was of course proficient in many types of film, and you can browse an excellent series of articles on his early work at Judy’s blog here) and a star who got better with the years. If you think you’ve seen all the trail western has to offer then this is a film worth checking out. John Ford, another extremely macho director, never shied away from highlighting the vital role played by women in the settling and ultimate conquest of the frontier, and Wellman added his own song of praise to feminine grit with this unusual and very rewarding western.