Wednesday, December 07, 2011
In Memoriam: Harry Morgan, 1915-2011
The death of Harry Morgan, age 96, brings one movie immediately to the Siren's mind, and it was only his sixth role, made when he was 28, so early in his career he was still billed as Henry.
In The Ox-Bow Incident, from 1943, he plays a Western drifter who blows into town with Fonda, and they are both caught up in a posse that ends by hanging Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn and Francis Ford, for the crime of stealing cattle. The men they lynched didn't do it. At the end of the film, Fonda and Morgan stand at the bar of a saloon with the guilt-wracked men from the posse. Neither Fonda nor Morgan participated in the killing--they voted to stop it--but they were there, and they feel complicit. Fonda begins to speak about Andrews, in a quiet voice that he knows is carrying all over the silent room. Morgan's face is morose, but his body language fights to be casual, as he hunches his shoulders around his whiskey. After all, he didn't hang the men himself. When Fonda brings up the $500 he's collected for Andrews' widow, Morgan makes a crack, his face trying to relax, one shoulder almost miming the slightest of shrugs: "Not bad for a husband who don't know any better than to buy cattle in the spring without a bill of sale."
The other men shift their eyes to Morgan, almost hopefully--someone whose callousness they can feel superior to. Fonda nudges Morgan with his elbow, then straightens up; he won't let him get away with that. "You should read this letter too," he says, referring to the letter Andrews wrote to his wife just before he died. "You know I can't read," snaps Morgan.
So Fonda reads, his eyes hidden by the brim of Morgan's hat. It's one of the finest scenes of Fonda's career, but Morgan is in the foreground, with only the top of his head and his eyes in the frame. He doesn't move, his expression doesn't seem to shift at all, and yet he is changing before our eyes.
At the end of the letter, the scene cuts to show the opposite side of Fonda. Morgan is off to the left, only a sliver of the back of his head showing. His illiterate character has understood the words as fully as anyone else in that saloon, and we know it from the brim of his hat, as it drops with his head in a gesture that isn't only respect for the dead. Andrews' character spent the last hour of his life knowing he was innocent and he was going to die, and then he did die, strangled at the end of a rope. From the back of Morgan's head, barely in frame, we know the drifter won't ever be able to defend himself from his memories by saying the dead man was a fool. Then the camera, after seeking out the men from the posse once more, moves higher to show the length of the bar and Morgan in the middle. His one good hand is still wrapped around his glass, he still looks in the same direction, but he stands straighter. Then Morgan turns to follow Fonda with a slightly saddle-weary gait.
It was an uncommonly auspicious start to Morgan's career--a great Western for the great William Wellman, playing his best scenes with Fonda, in the same cast with character actors like Jane Darwell and Henry Davenport. With the benefit of hindsight, you can look at this scene and see a gift that was going to mark Harry Morgan's acting, whether he was wordlessly menacing in The Big Clock, having his cozy assumptions worn away in Inherit the Wind, or, year after year, trying to fight insanity armed only with common sense in M*A*S*H.