No gaudy lasso shenanigans or puffed-up pistoleers in this unique and moody picture from 1943. Henry Fonda plays everyday cowpoke Gil Carter who, along with friend Art Croft (Harry Morgan) rides into Bridger’s Wells in the hope of finding the sweetheart who seems to have made a few more promises than she can keep.

The girl isn’t there, but the two manage to get caught up in the hunt for the murderers of a local Irishman in this gripping tale of (among other things) how small-town affection for locals can have a dark—not to say farcical—side, and how bumpkin boredom might lend itself to bloodlust.

The murder of the Irishman, reportedly in some kind of cattle-heist gone wrong, sparks a frenzy among the locals and, with the sheriff out of town, they ride out almost immediately to find and punish those responsible. Among the most eager of the lynchers is the quasi-regal Major Tetley (Frank Conroy), a confederate who saw little real action in the war and occupies himself by bullying his son (William Eythe) for the “feminine” weakness he sees in the boy. This strained relationship sets up the film’s interest in a kind of masculine posturing that obscures profound insecurity. And it veritably supercharges the confrontation created when a group of self-declared innocent campers are apprehended and standing up for real justice is labeled cowardice.

Few films achieve this combination of atmosphere and momentum. The Ox-Bow Incident is shot with the darkest of beauty as the posse’s night time journey into the woodland of Ox-Bow, where the hapless campers await, visually illustrates their moral transition. The wild landscape becomes a metaphor for the uncharted regions of their own aggression and insecurity, while the arrival of daylight is speculated to bring the arrival of the sheriff—that is, the force of rationality. A scene in which Tetley hassles one of the accused as campfire flames flicker and a vigilante townsman swings the hanging rope like a pendulum in the background is one of many examples of the film making full yet subtle use of the mise-en-scène to build tension.

The Ox-Bow Incident is scarcely less than a perfect picture. The speeches in the early part of the film may come across as slightly stagey and deliberative, but generally the film’s dialogue is both taut and evocative, and convincing performances from all involved ensure it largely transcends the self-righteous proselytizing of many modern justice-themed dramas. The thing is: the audience is sure all along that the accused men will turn out to be innocent, but this is hardly the point as the film shines a harsh light on mob-mentality, manhood, father-son antagonism, and the role of deeply personal fears in the enforcement of ‘objective’ authority. And, even though the innocent/guilty question is superficially predictable, the dénouement still surprises with its deft combination of resolution and horror.

The Ox-Bow Incident was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1998; it remains a true milestone of the Western’s first half-century, and one of Henry Fonda’s finest films.  5 / 5