#158. The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

While I was living with my dad there were nights that I just got antsy about going home at all. Not cuz there was tension or anything, my dad was always pretty relaxed about my going out and coming home whenever (although, living now with a roommate who wakes me every time he comes home after midnight, I’m sympathetic to parents who slam the book on this), but there was just something about the doldrums of home that, for whatever reason. I’d get some earworm about not being able to suffer it. I talked about this once before in the essay for The Smiling Madame Beudet. I just looked at that passage again, almost two years after writing it, and I’ve got qualms with how it’s done, obviously, but it’s pleasant. The kinda reading experience I was hoping this Project would provide for me as it progressed. As like a diary/study guide.

I’m writing this essay way later than I should be but I remember the night I watched The Ox-Bow Incident was an unsavory one where it’s not like something unpleasant had happened, but I remember I’d had three or four beers before catching an afternoon movie and when I got outta the movie I was sober but fatigued. A bit grumpy. There’s something about having a few beers in the mid-afternoon that makes the mid-evening feel like drudgery. I become introspective and start feeling like I’m wasting my life, like I’m never productive. I guess it’s a hangover.

And so it was one of those days and, on my way home at around 7 pm, I ended up driving straight past the house without slowing down cuz the thought of going back inside, resigning myself to the normal evening routine, seemed like anathema. Drove on and on toward a Starbucks that was about four miles from my house, totally not gas-efficient for me to’ve been hanging out there so often as I did, but I liked it cuz I didn’t run into neighbors, or people who worked around my house, and also because they were the only coffee shop in a big radius that had comfortable armchairs.

But so the sun is setting and I pull into this Starbucks, get an extra large Refresher (a big fruity caffeine drink), and then plop down in one of those aforementioned arm chairs and start watching The Ox-Bow Incident not because it’s next on the List, but because it’s only about seventy minutes. I think I was three or four movies behind it (that little pocket of the List’s chronology was also screwed up because of how long it was taking for To Be or Not to Be to arrive from Korea).

Being grouchy and hungover and self-loathing, I wasn’t in the best headspace to really enjoy a movie, but I was certainly in the mood to argue with one – by which I mean I was probably in the mood to bitch about a movie being really bad or engage with argumentative material And, fortuitously, The Ox-Bow Incident is the perfect movie for that.

ox bow 2        The premise is that these two guys, played by Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan, show up in a small Nevada town in 1885, quickly find themselves in a barroom ruckus, and just as things are heating up somebody comes rushing in to say that a local rancher was murdered, and his cattle stolen. So a bunch of guys in town form a posse, reeling Fonda and Morgan into the fray, to go find the murderers. In their journey they stumble upon three guys camping out, surrounded by cattle that doesn’t appear to be theirs. Deeming these three men the murderous thieves they’re looking for, the mob is set on lynching em right there and then. No time for a trial – and no need for one. These guys’ guilt is clear as day, says the posse, and a trial would only slow down, if not sabotage, the comeuppance they deserve.

There’s friction within the mob, though. There’s a local pastor who rode along with the posse and he’s the leading voice of dissent, of reason.

That Henry Fonda’s in it lends to seeing it as a precursor to 12 Angry Men. There’s lots of banter and the stars are given a good spectrum of emotions to run through. The three men are ultimately killed and we find out afterward that they were innocent.

So the movie is a cautionary tale against mob mentality, strangely foretelling the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), pioneered by Senator Joseph McCarthy, that’d put a pallor over all of Hollywood ten years later when he started leading a number of hearings wherein Hollywood personalities were questioned about their involvement with the Communist party. Ox-Bow seems like a movie both ahead of and behind its time in that respect. Seems like it could’ve spoken better to either the first red scare, in the late 1910s and ‘20s when Americans were on edge about the Bolshevik revolution (chronicled on this List by Zemlya and October), and also ten years later when McCarthy was reaching new heights of power and influence.

ox bow 1

Henry Fonda’s terrific, as usual. I sang praises to his overall talent in the essay for Grapes of Wrath, and he remains one of the most conspicuously gifted actors of the moment (such as they’re presented on the List, at least – I realize I need to stay away from superlatives about the overall industry since I’m really only privy to a sample of it; and a sample, I should say, whose motives I’m not so clear on). In both Jezebel and Grapes of Wrath he plays very serious characters with tight jaws and a brooding brow whose bottled-up seriousness explodes in violence. I kept waiting for that to happen here but, except for that early brawl in the saloon, the film itself remains as chatty and tense and pensive as its characters. Looking at this performance and those two mentioned above, it makes me marvel all the more at how easily he was sold as a comic lug in The Lady Eve.

so you've been publicly shamed       I read a book a couple years ago called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed that talked about the recent phenomenon of people tweeting something that destroys their careers. The author, Jon Ronson, went beyond that, though. Went to the Library of Congress and found a 200-year-old pamphlet, written by a judge and disseminated through a small American community, asking people to please contain their jollity at public hangings. Apparently people got really worked up about executions and threw shit at the convicted, cheering and jeering, flashing merriment where you’d think the mood would be something somber. (Incidentally, I’m currently reading The Green Mile by Stephen King and there’s an interesting passage from the beginning that’s stayed with me wherein the narrator, a corrections officer named Paul who works on death row in the 1930s, talks about the prison’s process, every six months after an execution, of sending cards to whoever had shown up to witness it, asking them if they were satisfied. I think it’s like a comment card asking them to fill in their thoughts about what they’d seen. “Do you feel justice was served,” etc. He goes on to say that anybody leaving their house at midnight to come sit in a sterile gallery and watch a man be electrocuted to death has got something heavy on their mind. In light of Jon Ronson’s book, and implications of Ox-Bow, I’m wondering if it isn’t maybe just curiosity.)

Another person I’ve mentioned here is Gary Vaynerchuk, a social media guru and marketing expert, and he’s been in a few confrontational interviews where people ask him, “Isn’t it the case that the internet, and social media especially, are bringing out the worst in people? Bullying is rampant, racism, sexism, trading of drugs and guns…” And Vaynerchuk just shrugs and makes a persuasive and passionate argument about how – and this is kind of his catchphrase – the internet hasn’t changed us, it’s exposed us. People spouting racist or misogynistic shit on the internet – they were always gonna do that, with or without the internet. Only difference is that they now have a platform to broaden their reach, talk to like-minded people; and, you could argue, he’s got a platform on which to be confronted, proven wrong. A greater chance of change.

On the flip side, Vaynerchuk says, charitable people have a broader reach too. People who were once lonely, totally isolated, are suddenly able to find themselves in constant contact with people who’ve had similar life experiences, who share the same opinions, love the same things. Can this lead to terrible shit? Sure. But another interesting thing he says is that the internet isn’t something people are doing, it’s something that’s happening. It can’t be stopped and, rather than rallying against it, it’s better to just find ways of moderating our own exposure to it and tempering how we use it.

Senator Fuckface McJoke

So what Ox-Bow gets me thinking about now is how mob mentality is timeless. It’s always helpful to be mindful of it, and to remind ourselves of its hazards with works like this now and again, but if it was happening in American gallows in the 1700s, if it was happening under big trees on the American frontier of the 1800s, if it happened in the mid-20th century with McCarthyism and the red scare, and if it’s happening every day on social media — Twitter in particular — with campaigns that don’t just seek to shame a person who’s said something tasteless but to cost them their job, alienate them from society, drive them to poverty if not suicide and then absolve themselves of any culpability. I imagine the filmmakers thinking this movie would be viewed in fifty or sixty years as a lesson about some archaic sort of behavior. A portrait of something people don’t do anymore.

It’s a bummer.

Either way: interesting movie with a serious emotional punch at the end. Just like Welles’s second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons, Ox-Bow Incident faced some concern about how dour it was. Producers were backing away from the obviously-terrific material for fear that a wartime audience wouldn’t wanna go see something so upsetting in theaters.


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