The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

The Ox Bow Incident has so much intense, dramatic focus that even its flaws, like the crappy studio lighting, only seem to lend to it a stripped down authenticity. Based on the novel of the same name by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, William A. Wellman’s brutal masterpiece about three innocent men lynched by a mob of Nevada ranchers stars Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, Dana Andrews, and a young Anthony Quinn. That such a film could be made in the middle of a war against fascism speaks highly of American culture. That such a film could be made at all reminds us that there’s a dark, sinister side of American history that we often ignore.

It’s 1885, two cowboys, Gil Carter, Fonda, and Art Croft, Harry Morgan, ride into a small town in Nevada called Bridger’s Wells. Bridger’s Wells is not a friendly place. Not only have the local ranchers had to deal with ongoing epidemic of cattle-rustling, there’s something deeper going on. After Gil Carter learns that his favorite prostitute has been driven out of town, he picks a fight with another cowboy, an angry reaction we don’t entirely understand until we realize that there’s a big shortage of available women in town. Bridger’s Wells, like many towns on the American frontier, has a toxic, masculine culture that comes from having no women or children.

We find out just how toxic Bridger’s Well is when a young man arrives with the news that Larry Kinkaid, a popular local rancher, has been murdered. In a matter of only minutes, a posse forms. The posse, led by Major Tetley, an ex Confederate army officer, Deputy Butch Mapes,  and a genuinely frighting Jane Darwell as a hardass, butch cowgirl named Jenny Grier, is an obvious lynch mob from the very beginning. A local judge does make a token effort to stop it, but gives up at the first signs of resistance. Arthur Davies, a shopkeeper, pleads with the mob to wait until the sheriff gets back into town, or, at the very least, bring anybody they catch back for a fair trial. Gil Carter and Art Croft, not being popular, solid citizens, and fearful they might be themselves accused of rustling, decide to tag along in order to avoid looking suspicious. The mob bullies Sparks, an African American preacher, into being their unofficial chaplain. They ride out to look for suspects.

After an abortive attack on a stage coach — which contains Gil Carter’s prostitute ex-girlfriend and her newly acquired rich husband — the lynch mob comes upon three men in sleeping bags, a half senile old man, and two men who appear to be in their 20s or 30s. One is a white man named David Martin, who’s played by Dana Andrews. Earlier that day he made the mistake that will cost him his life. He bought a stock of cattle from Larry Kincaid and didn’t get a bill of sale. The other young man, a Mexican named Francisco Morez, Anthony Quinn, is a gambler and petty thief David Martin had decided to hire without checking into his background, another fatal mistake.

The real heart and soul of the Ox Bow Incident is how differently both men react to their inevitable deaths.  Francisco Morez, as a brown skinned Mexican, has no illusions about what a posse of thirty, heavily armed white ranchers means. It’s a lynch mob. He’s not going to get a fair trial. He’s never going to see a judge or get a lawyer. They probably don’t even care if he’s innocent or guilty. They want their blood and they’ll get it. After a token attempt to escape, Morez concludes that fate has quite obviously punched his ticket and his time on earth is over. All he needs is a priest, or, in lieu of that, a Spanish speaker who will take his final confession back to a priest. His final prayer, in Spanish, is so moving you can see the blood lust in the eyes of the lynch mob briefly dissipate.

For David Martin it’s not that easy. Martin is a solid, middle-class citizen from out of town, an educated family man who composes a letter to his wife that’s so well-written that the shopkeeper Arthur Davies thinks if it’s only read out loud it will prove his innocence. Davies doesn’t understand that Major Tetley, the deputy, and Jenny Grier, the three ringleaders, don’t really care if he’s innocent or not. The contrast between Dana Andrews and Jane Darwell is revealing. All the strength that Darwell exhibited as Ma Joad has become toxic. She’s a cold Maggie Thatcher of the frontier, a stone face woman without any sign of feminine gentleness or compassion. Dana Andrews, on the other hand, even though he made his career playing macho war heroes, is soft, feminine, vulnerable. At first he can’t believe what’s really happening to him. Then he pleads with his soon to be murderers to have mercy on him because he’s a husband and a father, pathetic in his inability to see that he’s no longer in a civilized country where things like that matter. They may invoke law and order, but this mob is nothing more than a gang of serial killers. David Martin is not only every solid middle-class citizen who can’t believe it when the law doesn’t realize he’s innocent. He’s a human sacrifice to the blood lust at the heart of frontier America.

Gil Carter and Art Croft represent the rest of us. A pair of everymen who know what they’re witnessing is wrong, they make the right choices. Carter especially, who tries, and fails, to stop the lynching, acts heroically. But Wellman’s vision is too uncompromising and darkly Calvinist for any kind of happy ending. All we get is a brutal, ironic twist. The cavalry, the town sheriff, finally arrives, but 5 minutes too late. Then we learn what really happened to Larry Kinkaid.

The Public Enemy (1931)

The Public Enemy is a clear-sighted look into the dark, rancid heart of American capitalism.

Most famous for one of its most insignificant scenes, James Cagney rubbing a grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face, William Wellman’s seminal early gangster film dramatizes the life of a working-class Irish Catholic hoodlum from his rough boyhood in Chicago to his ghoulish demise. Wellman, who directed the very first movie to win an Oscar for “Best Picture” as well as the short, sharp, brutal masterpiece The Ox Bow Incident, has so much flinty, stripped-down artistic integrity that it makes me wonder if perhaps WASPs and only WASPs should direct gangster movies. Later films about organized crime like The Godfather, Scarface, and Goodfellas all seem marred by an operatic, overwrought, Italian sensibility. The TV mini-series Breaking Bad, in turn, feels like a short film padded into a 5-year-long mini-series. Why keep re shooting the same story in greater, more ornate, more baroque complexity when William Wellman put it on screen in its pure, distilled essence, all the way back in 1931?

It’s hard not to like Tommy Powers, the role that made James Cagney a movie star. We first meet him in 1909. He’s still a boy, but his personality is fully formed. He’s cynical. He hates girl. He’s belligerent. But he’s also clever, resourceful, brave. If he had the right kind of role models, he could probably be anything he wants. What he has are a physically abusive policeman for a father, and Putty Nose, a Fagin-like petty criminal, for a mentor. He also has a doting mother, a lifelong friend named Matt Doyle, and, most importantly of all, a straight laced brother named Mike.

We see Tommy and Matt a few years later as young men. They attempt to do a robbery for Putty Nose. It goes bad. One of their gang gets killed. They shoot a cop. Even though Putty Nose hangs them out to dry — a move that he will later regret —they don’t get caught. In 1917, Mike Powers enlists in the army, and goes off to France. We never quite learn what happens to the father. He simply disappears. Perhaps he just got sick of his family and abandoned them. In any event, while Tommy and Matt have jobs as streetcar conductors, they’re well on their way to being career criminals. New Years Day, 1920, the day Prohibition became the law of the land, is also the day they get their big break, the chance to make “real money”

One of the joys of The Public Enemy is the way it gives you a real sense of history. Filmed in 1931, on the eve of repeal, The Public Enemy stages the 1920, New Year’s Eve rush to buy alcohol in Chicago. It’s like any supermarket the day before a blizzard. People are stocking up while they can. But Matt, Tommy, and a local crime boss named Paddy Ryan are planning ahead. Alcohol will now be a hot commodity on the “free market.” Paddy is willing to buy all that Matt and Tommy can steal. He’s also willing to use them as muscle against saloon owners who don’t buy their beer. Paddy works for Nails Nathan, the biggest gangster in Chicago, and by signing on with Paddy, Tommy and Matt are signing on with Nails Nathan. Soon, Tommy is a rising star in the Chicago underworld, complete with a wad of cash, and a fancy new wardrobe. He’s a natural, brutal, clever, and efficient. He has no moral scruples to get in his way. When he’s ordered to kill Putty Nose, he does it with no more regret than he would have stepping on a centipede in the basement, or swatting a fly. Matt, by contrast, while an enthusiastic professional criminal, still manages to look a bit distressed as Putty Nose begs for his life, and Tommy guns him down in cold blood.

But it’s not Matt who serves as the main foil for Tommy Powers. It’s his brother, Mike Powers. While Mike may in fact be the petty embezzler Tommy accuses him of being — he may scam coins at his job as a streetcar conductor —he’s still a man who struggles against the temptations of a career as a gangster. That means long hours at work, night school, the slow, demoralizing grind of working-class men everywhere. Tommy’s mother pretends not to take sides, but it’s clear Tommy, not Mike, is her favorite. Whether or not Tommy has a grudging respect for Mike is the film’s most intriguing question. Tommy, to be sure, is a cold blooded sociopath, but when his brother punches him in the face, he let’s him get away with it. When Mike histrionically declaims that a keg of Tommy’s illegal beer is not just beer but “beer mixed with blood” Tommy makes a show of bravado, but we wonder if, deep down inside, he might not realize his brother is right, that he’s a doomed man headed for certain damnation.

The Public Enemy is a pre-Hayes Code movie. Wellman eschews simplistic moralism. There are vivid, realistic scenes of the Chicago underworld, a gangster’s mistress who gets Tommy drunk and seduces him, a swishy, gay tailor, that were censored for decades. Wellman doesn’t balk at showing us how much more fun being a gangster must have been then being a working man. Mike Powers might be the film’s moral center, but he’s a dull, ineffectual, mean spirited scold. William Wellman was under no obligation to bring Tommy Powers to a bad end. We can assume that, when he does, his motivation was to tell an honest story, not to live up to any kind of coercive requirement to show that “crime doesn’t pay.” So when Tommy does meet a bad end, it’s not a deus ex machina, not a clumsy tip of the hat to the censors. It’s the only logical outcome of Tommy’s story. Tommy, who is a sociopath may be a charismatic, entertaining man, but, inside, he’s rotten through and through. The are no happy endings. Crime doesn’t pay. It pays you good and hard.

Even 80 years later, the last minute of The Public Enemy is one of the most brutal, and vivid sequences ever put to film. Tommy Powers is snuffed out with no more sentiment than he snuffed out Putty Face.  By comparison, Brian De Palma’s Scarface looks like a  silly gore fest and Scorsese’s Goodfellas like bad, Italian stand up comedy.