Clocking in at just 75 minutes long, The Ox-Bow Incident is one of the shortest "classics" ever.
The story is simple and devastatingly tragic: In an old west town, word spreads that a well-liked rancher has been murdered and his cattle stolen. Before you know it, a lynch mob is formed and the cowboys head into the night to find the killers.
Like that, they find three men with the rancher's cattle and they're strung up. Protesting that they were purchased rightfully, the men can't produce a bill of sale. When one nearly breaks into tears, claiming his innocence and talking about a wife and children at home, they give them until morning to prove their innocence. Naturally, they can't (and the evidence against them is compelling, though it's short of "proof"), and the mob -- depite Henry Fonda's voice of reason in the background -- eventually hangs the murderers and thieves.
And then the mob returns home, only to discover that the farmer isn't dead and that he really had sold his cattle. What's a lynch mob to do when it can't "take it back"?
This cautionary tale about the dangers of groupthink and the frequent misconceptions of the masses is as relevant as ever in today's world of Homeland Security and the DMCA. It also echoes Fonda's similar role in 12 Angry Men, another high water mark in movies about the law and justice. It's simple and is presented with minimal flourish. The story stands on its own, and though it is quiet and quick, it's one of the saddest movies ever produced.
Now available on DVD, a commentary track adds substantial backstory to what was hardly a straightforward production.