William A. Wellman was a truly underrated Hollywood director. Beyond, The Public Enemy, most people are completely unaware of his work. It certainly doesn’t help that his Wings (1927), the first best picture winner, has never been released on DVD. Thankfully, though, most of his important sound works are available.
The Ox-Bow Incident highlights his ability to pack as much emotional depth as possible into a film that’s less than 90-minutes in length. In fact, it’s even shorter than The Public Enemy at an incredible 75-minute length. Wellman only cares about hitting the points and the short length only helps to prove how quickly mob violence can escalate. It takes about ten minutes for the mob to form and then head out on its rampage. There is also nothing showy here. Wellman can’t make it any more obvious that this is a small set where 90 percent of the film takes place. The lack of extravagance on the filmmaker’s part let’s the actors shine. Henry Fonda brings his usual calm-yet-fiery personality to a largely observing role, but his reading of the letter at the end of the film could not be better. Dana Andrews also shines as the leader of the group framed for the murder. It’s a preview of his great performance in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).
The film was released on DVD back in 2003 under Fox’s Studio Classics banner and the transfer looked amazing for such a small film. Fox also included a nice selection of features with a commentary and the Henry Fonda Biography episode. There’s also a super-short stills gallery of promotional on-set photos, the usual restoration comparison and a classic trailer where Fonda explains why he liked the story. (It reminds me a lot of The Big Sleep‘s trailer where Bogie picks the book up off the shelf and explains the story.)
This is a classic work of art and one of the few Westerns that does not seek to be just fun, but to show the horror of man taking the law into his own hands. It might be short, but Wellman is able to pack an effecting, moving story in that frame.