Want to learn how to direct a film? Watch something by William Wellman. Whether or not you like this story (itself a bit of a precursor to another, more famous Henry Fonda role, 12 Angry Men, establishing his morally coded characters), whether or not you like the Western genre (though aside from horses, guns, sheriffs, drunks and outlaws it hardly fits many other tropes), and whether or not you like black and white films (I never understood that…), Wellman’s control and his deceptively simple direction are a thing to see.
Plot: Fonda is Gil Carter who, along with his buddy Art (Harry Morgan) go alongside a lawless posse intent on killing a man suspected of murder and cattle rustling. Much of the film takes place in the area called the Ox-Bow, where the gang, led by a mustachioed, aggressively patriarchal former army-man Tetley (Frank Conroy) and blindly angry cowboy Jeff Farnley (Marc Lawrence), corners a group of three men. Dana Andrews give perhaps his best performance as suspected killer Donald Martin, and a young Anthony Quinn also shines as one of Donald’s group, Juan Martinez. Despite their protestations of innocence, and only flimsy evidence suggesting otherwise, the posse decides to hang them then and there. Only Fonda and a small group of others, including Tetley’s “cowardly” son Gerald (William Eythe) protest.
A courtroom-drama transposed to the harsh plains, The Ox-Bow Incident is ahead of its time psychologically. The tense relationships drawn, most notably between father and son in Major Tetley and Gerald, and also between Marc and Gil, are as much an integral part of the story as the false proceedings and drama therein.
Wellman’s penchant for deep-focus photography and his understated blocking are what makes this film sing. Consider one particular shot:
Major Tetley hands his son the whip to take out the horse that will then hang Donald. The goal of the shot: hand the whip, watch him leave. How do you shoot this? Most might go with shot-reverse-shot, dolly in on the son, and cut out for the departure. Wellman’s solution is simpler and more effective. In a medium 2-shot he frames both in profile, father frame-right, son frame-left. Major Tetley hands the whip then turns his back to the camera and basically steps left. We see his back, but more importantly, we see the son, in depth in frame and now in wide-shot walking off into the distance and out of frame.
This accomplishes two things: it keeps the drama of the moment (the hanging), but also keeps the father-son dynamic literally in the foreground throughout. The blocking is simple but effective. When the son walks off in the background we aren’t privy to his father’s face. We interpret that emotion (an emotion that the son will later vocalize for us). It’s brilliant and pure storytelling. It’s not that editing is a bad thing, but Wellman’s school of thought – efficiency – trumps it in this case.
I’ve asked before on this blog whether there is a “right” and “wrong” place to put the camera. I think that there is almost always, a wrong place. Right can be more debatable. It’s not that there’s one right place, but some are “righter” than others. Watch this film and pause it at any moment. 3-shots with gaunt faces, where eyelines tell the story. Wide shots of the town, pre-posse, where the action in the background (a galloping horse) is as important as that in the foreground (a mob forming).
In some sense Wellman uses two strategies via his deep-focus: split attention, and continuous attention. Maybe I’ll try to return to this in a later post. Split attention = where foreground and background are essentially at odds with one another. Where we, the audience, have to decide which is more important. Wellman may give us slight clues with preferential framing, but he’s basically telling concurrent narratives in this technique.
Continuous attention = the aforementioned father/son example. Where Wellman uses background and foreground in the same shot, but provides us with a clear path – in this instance that path is made up of Gerald’s walk and Major Tetley’s turn – with which to follow the action.
There’s one other shot I want to consider. Before that, as brief background: the major flaw of this film is that two monologues – one by Gerald and another by Gil – become a bit preachy at the end. Gil’s monologue, give in the bar, and with he and Art framed in 2-shot, Art in foreground and in 3/4 and Gil in background and in profile, is worth further examination.
As Gil unfolds Donald’s dying letter to read aloud to all present Wellman dollies in towards him. As he does so, Art turns slightly, and the brim of Art’s hat blocks our view of Gil’s eyes completely. It’s strange, and daring. Common knowledge, particularly in classic Hollywood, is that the eyes tell the emotion. So by blocking the eyes Wellman is relying solely on three things: his camera for visual and emotional punctuation, the quality of Fonda’s voice, and the words in the letter. That’s a huge risk – ignoring those big blue (or black and white here) eyes and relying on other, equally cinematic traits. In addition to forcibly putting weight on specific elements of his filmmaking, the shot also puts more emphasis on Donald’s words – the words of an absent character at that point – than on Fonda’s reaction. More intrigue: Fonda, the star, is, though literally in the shot, an afterthought.