Thursday, June 02, 2005

I'm always surprised by how much I enjoy westerns. They seem so old-fashioned, concerned with an age before autos and electricity (though made during the era of both, obviously), and it's a genre whose heyday is long past. And though dominated by men, with the frequent homoeroticism and homosocialization that naturally results, they seem about as gay as the superbowl. Yet the best ones dramatize big issues of justice and civilization (because neither could be taken for granted out west) in stories that include a good dose of action, with an enticing hint of love interest. (The best westerns also have at least one female character who functions as more than just a saloon callgirl with a pretty singing voice.)

The Ox-Bow Incident was the spring pick for Chicago's citywide reading program (One Book One Chicago), and though I don't always participate, I read this one, then attended a program where the film was screened followed by discussion. I'll admit right up front that I'm not a Henry Fonda fan--I find his acting cold and flat, and I'm perplexed by his stardom. He does nothing to change my opinion in this film, though perhaps his affect helps to balance the strong emotions of the film. Standouts for me are Dana Andrews, who is even more handsome here than he is in Laura, sporting wild, youthful wavy hair that helps lend his innocent death a more poignant quality; and Anthony Quinn who, as "The Mex," is convincing and charismatic. The supporting cast has some excellent members, including Harry Morgan (long before television had rounded his quirky features into something lovable and intimately avuncular), whose part is surprisingly small, considering his character is the narator of the book, the lens through which all the action and a considerable amount of moralizing is filtered; also Marc Lawrence, a veteran of noir with a surprisingly long career; Jane Darwell (Ma Joad reunited with Tom) , perfectly cast as a tough old western woman who can out-macho most of the men; and Harry Davenport (grandpa in Meet Me in St. Louis).

The film condenses the book economically, maintaining the essential story, though it takes some questionable shortcuts (summarizing Davies' speech and turning it into Martin's letter, undisclosed in the novel) and, most objectionably, supplies Gil and Art with the backbone they lack in the novel, letting the audience feel nobler at a cheaper price. Arguably, a good part of the value of the novel is in warning the reader what can happen when good men stand by and do nothing. This is rather undermined when the heroes are, well, too heroic. Maj. Tetley, the worst offender in both versions of the story, is somewhat less of a creep here, his phoney military past less questioned, and the consequences of his behavior mitigated. His son seems to survive the film version, though perhaps just to reduce a perceived wimp factor.

Actually, Gerald Tetley and Jenny Grier strike me as queer characters. (I actually saw a lot of evidence in the novel that Art and Gil have something more than friendship going on emotionally.) The bullied son who commits suicide in the book is clearly the victim of a monstrous father, and Grier strikes me as a lesbian character who's made great sacrifice (developed a kind of self-hating misogny) in order to be, not just one of the guys, but one of the most powerful and respected of them. Interesting. (Along the lines of social issues raised by the film, a bit of trivia: the program lecturer told us that although modern audiences tend to suspect the actor playing Sparks of being a white guy in blackface, he was actually the real deal. We had a good discussion of his character.)

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars.

Song: "Danger Zone" by Gwen Stefani (a guilty pleasure!) Love, Angel, Music, Baby



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