Of course, sometimes it's great to watch a story like that, given how many bad guys look like good guys in the real world and how infrequently they get the aforementioned comeuppance. Like Mike Royko, sometimes I just want to watch the bad guys lose, realistic or not.
And many a Western has offered a far more complex view of the world, sometimes using the genre's own mythos as the backdrop for some deep and interesting questions about human beings and their nature. Star Henry Fonda and director William Wellman both traded off work on other 20th Century Fox movies so they could create such a release with 1943's The Ox-Bow Incident, an adaptation of the 1940 Walter Van Tilberg Clark novel of the same name.
Fonda is cowboy Gil Carter, who along with friend Art Croft finds himself wrapped up in a posse seeking the murderers of a local rancher. The posse is less of an instrument of law enforcement and more a weapon of vengeance, led by former Confederate Army Major Tetley and a brutal sheriff's deputy, and Gil and Art join it as much to keep suspicion off themselves as to find the killer.
When the group trails three men herding cattle to their campsite, they believe them to be the ones who murdered the rancher and they plan to lynch them on the spot. Despite the urging of town civic leader Arthur Davies to let the men be tried in a court of law, the mob insists on the vengeance it thinks right. Dana Andrews stars as Donald Martin, one of the three accused men, and Anthony Quinn is another.
Fonda is very different from his usual calm and assured screen persona. Touchy, irritable and cynically bitter, Gil wants little to do with the mob vengeance but will not speak out too loudly lest they decide he had a role in the killing. Andrews' haunted face carries the emotional weight of the movie as he tried to convince the posse of his innocence or at least understand their unfathomable urge for immediate "justice." A throwaway scene between Gil and former love Rose Mapen (Mary Beth Hughes) is just that; it hasn't any real purpose or reason for being in the movie.
Ox-Bow, although nominated for an Academy Award, did poorly at the box-office. The middle of World War II may not have been the best time to try to sell a movie that raised questions about hurried judgments and the propriety of terminal justice. Its stature has improved with time and its caution against mob rule is as timeless as the unfortunate need to offer it.