(USA 1936)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Sylvia Sidney, Spencer Tracy, Walter Abel, Bruce Cabot, Edward Ellis, Walter Brennan, Frank Albertson
Genre: Film-Noir
Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Bartlett Cormack, Fritz Lang, based on Norman Krasna's "Mob Rule"
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Composer: Franz Waxman
Runtime: 92 minutes

"We're human, after all" - Joe Wilson

In most cases, the better work of a director in his home country winds up being lesser known stateside than their inferior Hollywood fare. Such is not the case with Germany's greatest director Fritz Lang, whose Metropolis and M are verifiable classics, but in spite of being part of the National Film Registry his first American movie has largely been forgotten with a whopping 287 votes on IMDb, no DVD, and only American distribution of the video. While Fury doesn't boast the expressionistic imagery of his German work, the 1936 film is not the least bit creaky and more importantly a timeless examination of human nature.

Fury is an extension of the dark and hostile world view Lang demonstrated in M. The big difference is that M's star was guilty from the beginning, while Fury star Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy) is innocent until he's put in a position where his human nature "makes" him act unjustly. The resounding theme of the film is human nature is to act impulsively and then justify your inhuman actions with inhuman thoughts and words. The barber even compares an impulse to an itch saying you have to scratch it. The statement the movie makes is that we must suppress this nature, this mindless reaction, and act based on right thinking before it's too late.

Joe starts off as a good, hard working man. He tries to get his brother to quit working for the racketeer, setting a positive example by working at the gas station. It's not the kind of job you aspire to, with wages that prevent Joe from what's important in his life, but it's an honest living.

Joe is going through a tough time because he's deeply in love with Katherine Grant (Sylvia Sidney), but since he doesn't make much she had to take a teaching job out west so they could save enough money to get married. They don't see each other for more than a year, but finally the day comes when Joe can make the trek out there and they can soon be married.

All should be well, but Joe is stopped by the police along the way because he fits the very general description of a perpetrator and jailed on what could best be called circumstantial evidence. Three guys and a girl got a ransom for kidnapping a child and Joe could be one of them because, heaven forbid, he also has peanuts in his pockets. On top of that, he has one $5 bill that matches the serial number of a stolen one. This does seem like a strange coincidence, but on the other hand if you just made off with tons of money would you be driving around with only $5 on you?

Fury is not a film about law enforcement of judicial corruption. The police did Joe no favors, but it's their job to follow up on the evidence and guilty people have had far less incriminating evidence on them than a matching bill. What the film shows is that it's our nature to gossip, and this supposedly harmless chatter can have deadly results. It can cause mass hysteria.

The American justice system is founded on the premise of innocent until proven guilty, but that only works in the absolute. The big problem now is people being tried in the media well before the courts, but in the old small towns it was much worse. The problem is it's human nature to believe what you hear. After all, most of your friends would never lie TO YOU, right? It's not about lying in the sense of deception, but simply hearsay being passed around from person to person. You've all played that game where someone writes down a sentence and whispers it to the person next to them with the whispering chain continuing until everyone has heard it. The last person then blurts out something only somewhat reminiscent of what's on that paper. When you have bad information to begin with, things are that much worse. Joe may have been acquitted had the case gone to trial, but the deck would certainly have been stacked against him because everyone in the small town knew falsities about this evil outsider and the theoretical jury of his peers would have been a jury of peers who already "knew" he was guilty.

Fury is a trial movie, but initially it uses the extreme example. The wildly exaggerated stories have Joe in possession of $5,000-$10,000 of the ransom money and they won't believe the deputy when he says it's only $5. They recruited him as the informant, but won't believe him when he doesn't add fuel to the fire because it's more fun to believe the lurid tale. There's some of the typical cynicism and paranoia about the honesty, integrity, and intentions of the police, but mainly it's more fun not to believe him as it provides "entertainment" in a town that's starving for it. When he leaves, we get the sense that sanity leaves with him. He walks off the screen with the camera focusing not on him since he's not going to be able to do anything, but on the leaders of what will soon be a mob. It's a subtle camera decision that leads us to a disheartening realization.

These shady men drinking at the bar who wouldn't believe the deputy then decide they aren't going to let the police decide how to handle this evil kidnapper, they are going to band the town together to demand justice. A mob forms and a series of bad decisions on sending backup combined with scared deputies bailing results in the sheriff and a handful of men having to take on the entire rioting town.  The sheriff and Katherine, who arrives late and passes out when she sees Joe trapped in his fiery jail cell about to burn to death, are the only ones who considered Joe's possible innocence, but they aren't able to stop the mob. Of course, hours after Joe's "death" it's revealed that he was innocent and the real gang was caught.

Everyone in the town feels stupid, but no one is willing to take responsibility for their actions. After all, it wasn't there fault they were lead to believe he was guilty. Even death cannot make them blink. They just want to forget their mistake and go on with their lives. They are more concerned with the reputation of their town than the justice they were supposedly seeking. This fact really underlines the emptiness of their supposed conviction to justice.

Joe is not really dead, he secretly escaped with just some burns after two clowns attempting to blow him up actually blew up his prison bars, causing his dog Rainbow to be the only martyr. Joe was able to hide out in a movie theatre where the patrons got a big kick out of seeing footage of him burning to death. The good part of Joe died in that fire, the part that had any faith in humans. We now see Joe full of soot, demanding the lights be turned off so he can lurk in the shadows. Previously the positive influence in the family, he is not consumed by revenge and needs his brothers help to execute his diabolical plot.

With Joe secretly pulling the strings, twenty-two people are accused of murder. A conviction won't be easy not because they don't have a body, but because it's natural for the town to band together to preserve their "good" name. Everyone comes out in favor of their townsmen instead of the outsider even though they realize these people are guilty. Even the honorable sheriff (Edward Ellis) begrudgingly perjures himself claiming the mob consisted of men from another town. The case is ready to be thrown out because the prosecution's witnesses refuse to corroborate even the most basic facts of the case like Joe being in the prison.

The witnesses were just put up there to show the community as a whole was responsible for Joe's death. It goes well beyond the 22 men because the whole town was spreading falsities, sitting back while an innocent man was trapped in a fire they created, and choosing their own inhabitants over the justice they claimed to be seeking. The key scene is when a newsreel of the lynching is shown. It contains vivid images that prove the mob was not seeking justice, but fun at the expense of another human being. There was no cause, only insanity prevailing because an atmosphere was created where it could. With great tight shots of the violent acts and the simple technique of stop action, Lang created at the very worst one of the most harrowing and effective pieces of evidence footage ever shown in a trial movie.

The film is not about revenge. It's a statement that it's human nature to act wrongly in the name of revenge just like it's human nature to act wrongly in the name of "justice." Joe can no longer be Joe now that he's dead. His vengeful obsession, his quest to make the town suffer what he suffered, deprives him of what's really important in his life. He can't see Katherine because he knows she's too good a person to go along with his plan. He can't make it work without her though, so he must continue to not see her, to let her suffer by believing he's dead.

Even with this footage, they still need proof Joe is dead. Joe has a great idea that almost cost him his finger (the ring was way too small for even his pinky) but he'd have "give two hands for." Joe sends one of those cut and paste letters to the judge claiming to be a citizen who cleaned up the jail and was going to keep a ring for a "mementum." Although Katherine believes he's alive because she saw peanuts in his brothers coat and now a letter with Joe's signature inaccuracy, she still testifies it's the ring she gave him knowing full well this proof he's dead will hang a bunch of people that didn't kill him.

After testifying, Katherine starts asking Joe's brothers questions, trying to get them to admit he's alive. Joe threatens to kill his own brothers if they corroborate her suspicions, but they don't need to because she suddenly walks in. She tries to make him understand what he's doing and what it's cost him. "I am thinking about you, about what a swell guy you were when you were alive." Joe isn't willing to listen, deciding he doesn't need anyone and will do everything alone.

Lang does a great job of showing Joe's paranoia, conscious, and longing for Katherine causing a descent into madness. Nothing is satisfying to Joe anymore, and he can't get the people he's turned the table on by wrongly making into victims out of his head. This is highlighted by a shot of the people on trial reflected in a store window Joe is looking in. He's standing before them, hanging judgement on their lives like they did his, only they can't see him.

Ultimately, Fury makes a case for tolerance and justice. As the sentences are being read, Joe finally realizes what he's done is also wrong and makes a public appearance in the courtroom. It's not that he cares about the lives of those "22 rats," but that by stooping to their level he was robbed of the only things of value they weren't able to take from him, his love and his life. He realizes that unless he rights his wrong he's not better than they are and has no chance of ever regaining his life, honor, and woman. Lang, who wanted Joe to really die in the fire, wanted the film to end with Joe's speech, leaving us with the idea that he knows he'll be punished for what he did but ultimately it's worth it to him. The studio, once again meddling, insisted on the happier ending of Katherine kissing Joe so we know that she'll wait for him. It's the worst thing about the film because his redemption comes too quickly and easily and it overshadows the fact that virtually every character in the film was at least morally guilty.

Lang's direction is excellent. It's very tight. The early scenes masterfully brood tension and uneasiness, leading the audience to realizations about the nature of the townspeople and mob but keeping many aspects subtle until things are ready to burst out of control. Although the mob scene is not in the class with the closing of another forgotten classic that through a scathing account of Hollywood shows the subhuman aspects of our race, John Schlesinger's The Day of the Locust, it's almost unfair to hold any scene to that standard, much less something from 1936. What I liked about it is we got two distinct perspectives of the "lynching." The first makes the mob look infinite then mainly focuses on the good sheriff's futile attempts to fight it off, with some excellent scenes of raiding though the smoke bombs, and on making us feel as helpless as Joe. On the other hand, the newsreel focused on the despicable acts of the mob, showing they were rampaging not for the cause but for the fun of it. The cinematography is very strong for the time, particularly the way the inscription of the ring is shown early on in comparison to later on after it's the only piece of Joe that survived the fire. For the most part it wasn't about the style, but about lack thereof being the most effective way. Look at the way the expressions that told the story are captured, static close-ups are all that's necessary to bring home the feeling of the gang watching succumbing to their impulse in the bar and watching Joe as he's about to burn to death.

Spencer Tracy's performance is not on the level of Peter Lorre's in M, but still extremely commendable. He plays Joe almost as two different people that have enough in common to still be Joe. He does a lot with his body language to show the changes Joe is going through. We see how Joe can justify his actions, how he's consumed, and his performance always feels credible and truthful. Unfortunately, Sylvia Sidney's character is the kind of one-dimensional goody that worked in the old days, but ages poorly. Her overly melodramatic performance doesn't help any, but you have to accept some lameness when you watch a movie that's 65 years old and it's overshadowed by the story still being so timely.

Undoubtedly, Fury would have been far more cynical and hard hitting had Lang made the film he wanted to. Still, it's aged so incredibly well. Fury is the kind of movie that should be shown in schools, one of the foremost places where gossip runs rampant and lives can be forever altered because of it. The power behind the Fury is in the way it calls you on your own actions, makes you feel guilty. Your impulses and words probably haven't lead to someone nearly burning to death, but everyone has spread rumors that cast someone in a bad light without knowing for sure if they were true. It's very hard to think of other people rather than yourself, to consider other people's feelings and lively hood over your own immediate needs and entertainment, but it's at least possible if you think before you act.



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