The issue of mob justice and vigilantism has often inspired filmmakers over the decades but few movies offer as unflinching a look at the consequences of taking the law into one’s own hands as William Wellman’s “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943).

This intense film has a running time of a mere 75 minutes but packs the wallop of something twice that length. I vividly remember the first time I saw this movie about twenty years ago, and I felt just as disturbed by its stark ending when I watched it again recently.

Dana Andrews in "The Ox-Bow Incident"

Set in Nevada in 1885, the film begins with Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan of “MASH” fame) riding into a one-horse town for a drink, only to find tensions caused by a spate of cattle thefts. Carter is a hot-head who soon gets into a fight with rancher Jeff Farnley (Marc Lawrence).

Just then, news comes in that Farnley’s friend Larry Kinkaid has reportedly been robbed of his cattle and murdered. Soon enough, Farnley and Major Tetley (Frank Conroy) have gathered together a group of men to track down those who attacked Kinkaid. Though described as a posse, this is nothing but a lynch mob with little interest in justice.

Carter and Croft reluctantly ride along with the posse, which comes across three men with a herd of cattle – Donald Martin (a young Dana Andrews in one of his first major roles), Juan Martinez (an equally young Anthony Quinn) and Alva Hardwicke (portrayed by silent movie veteran Francis Ford, the brother of director John Ford) – and decides to mete out summary justice.

Anthony Quinn, Dana Andrews, Henry Fonda and Frank Conroy in "The Ox-Bow Incident"

Most of the men in the mob have no interest whatsoever in establishing whether the three men were actually involved in any crime – they’re too busy drinking and baying for blood in order to right a perceived wrong. Martin’s claim about buying the cattle from Kinkaid without a bill of sale makes no difference with this lot – they’re more focussed on circumstantial evidence like Kinkaid’s gun that is found in Martinez’s possession.

Even Carter is no traditional hero – though he and Croft are among seven men who vote against hanging Martin, Hardwicke and Martinez, the duo actually joined the posse to ensure they would not be suspected of involvement in the attack on Kinkaid.

Where a lesser director would have resorted to mawkishness, Wellman handles the heartbreaking climax and its impact on the members of the posse with great sensitivity.

Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan in "The Ox-Bow Incident"

Every time I watch Hollywood movies from the 1940s and 1950s, I’m struck by how good almost all the actors in supporting roles are. Frank Conroy is excellent as the prissy Major Tetley, who may have never actually seen action in the Civil War and views the posse as a way of making a man out of his pacifist son, while Jane Darwell is the cackling Jenny Grier, the only female member of the posse who participates with relish in activities that would make hardened men squirm.

Here, Darwell portrays a woman who is the complete opposite of the loving matriarch she played in the classic “Grapes Of Wrath”, which too starred Fonda. “The Ox-Bow Incident” was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar but lost out to another classic – “Casablanca”.

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