The first thing one notices about The Ox-Bow Incident is its striking black-and-white visuals – its surreal lighting carves deep contours into each character’s face, providing the first hint that something is off in William-Wellman’s quiet film. Its vast surroundings hammer it home, imposing a feeling of isolation and endless expanse in an early America where the law ran wild and civilians took it upon themselves to set things right.
Released in the midst of World War II, at a time when men, women, and children were united in their love and patriotism for their country, it’s not a movie that one would expect or want to see. The film gains its personality from painting its characters with shadows of a doubt, going against the commonly heroic protagonists of other westerns. It brought into question several social and cultural standards at the time, including the righteousness of crowds and the American people, the expectations of males and masculinity, and the roles of black actors in society. Despite less-than-stellar success at the box office, The Ox-Bow Incident has become a fan favorite over the years for its subtlety, complexity, and diverse cast of characters. It runs a short 75 minutes, but you certainly get your money’s worth.