Judge Joe Armenio thinks you should stop reading this right now and go watch some Fritz Lang films.
"I could smell myself burn."—Joe Wilson
The great director Fritz Lang (1890-1976) fled Germany in 1933, after being asked to head the Nazi film industry. He made Liliom in France in 1934, and languished for a year in the United States before releasing Fury, a drama about an attempted lynching. Lang made Fury for fluffy MGM—"the studio of Andy Hardy and Dr. Kildare," as Peter Bogdanovich says in his commentary—the least likely studio to produce such a movie. As Bogdanovich also states, it's "a compromised film," but it's also a dark meditation on some characteristically Langian themes: the terrifying amorality of a mob, the indifference of fate, the madness of revenge, and the fragility of the bonds that tie both people and societies together.
Facts of the Case
Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy, Captains Courageous) is an auto mechanic in Chicago who is picked up on suspicion of kidnapping while driving through the country on the way to see his fiancée, Katherine (Sylvia Sidney, You Only Live Once), after a long absence. Gossip about his capture leads to impatience and ultimately violence on the part of the town's residents, who storm the jail in an attempt to lynch him. The jail is blown up in the assault and Joe is presumed dead, but he escapes and vows revenge on those who attempted to kill him.
There's a scene early in Fury in which a kindly small-town barber insists that everyone has dark impulses, and then admits that occasionally he gets the urge to slice his customers' throats. I can think of no better image to sum up Fritz Lang's view of a world in which the veneer of civilization is thin, and every man potentially a criminal, especially when he surrenders his individual morality to a furious and conscienceless crowd. He dealt with this theme unforgettably in his great German film M; certainly the experience of living and working in volatile Weimar Germany, a society which seemed to be coming apart at the seams for its entire 15-year existence, affected Lang greatly, as did the Nazi takeover, the specter of which hangs over all of his American films.
The lynch mob was thus a natural focus for Lang, and a naturally American one as well. During the half-century before this film was made, over 6,000 Americans were lynched (a statistic put into the mouth of the DA played by Walter Abel in the climactic trial sequence), most of them African-American southerners killed by whites as a sort of public theater, a way of dramatizing white supremacy. During the 1930s, African-American leaders were focused on (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to pass a federal anti-lynching law, so the issue was surrounded by considerable controversy. Lang realized that his condemnation of lynch law would be most powerful if the victim were both black and guilty of the crime of which he was accused, but it would have been impossible to make such a film within the context of the Hollywood studio system; we have to settle here for a working-class white victim, one who is not guilty.
Directors who worked in Weimar Germany are usually casually labeled "Expressionist," but by 1936 Lang had long since moved away from the artificial sets and costumes which animated Expressionist style. His technique was still rather strange and baroque by Hollywood standards, but he constructed his images from the most realistic materials. In the lynching scene we see a few potent examples of this: the labyrinthine system of bars that make up the prison; the subjective shot from the mob's point of view, advancing on seemingly frozen guards; the terrifying scanning of faces as the prison burns, silent save for a woman praying, as one yokel moronically munches on a hot dog. These scenes of mob violence are what interest Lang, and here we get the full, brilliant impact of his style and tone. This is a film with a withering perspective on small-town life; Depression-era films (by John Ford and Frank Capra, among others) are remembered for their sentimentalizing of old-fashioned values and salt-of-the-earth folks, but the country people here are small-minded, ignorant, and take joy in their violence—"Let's have some fun," shouts one of them as the lynching begins. As Joe prepares to head west to see Katherine, there are several mocking references to Indian attacks, but it soon becomes clear that the only savages in the film are white.
Before and after the lynching sequence the film is less powerful, but it's always interesting to watch Lang attempt to adapt to Hollywood style. At moments of high emotion between individual characters he remains cool and distant, observing the action from a high angle or in objective medium shots that are held for an unusually long time. The opening scenes between Joe and Katherine play out in a low-key way that is uncharacteristic for Lang, but highly effective in establishing the film's themes. With just a few lines of dialogue, Tracy establishes himself as a straight arrow, determined to live by the law but frustrated by his inability to make enough money to get married (the look that he and Sidney exchange when he peeks into her luggage and casually touches her underwear says volumes about their sexual frustration without a single word being spoken). When Joe later renounces the rule of law and vows revenge, we remember this earlier moment.
The second half of the film is dominated by the courtroom drama featuring Abel's DA. These scenes seem forced and stagy, and roam pretty far afield from the film's central characters and themes (Katherine is catatonic for part of the sequence, and Joe has little to do except sit and glower). Lang's critique of revenge as a mad, empty pursuit is the main point of interest here, culminating in a final speech by Joe that manages to provide an ending that is both happy, in a way, and deeply unconsoling.
Fury looks about as good here as a 70-year-old film can look. There are a few print defects, but not many, and the black-and-white image is very sharp. The DVD includes a commentary by director and film scholar Peter Bogdanovich, who knew Lang and interviewed him extensively in 1965. The commentary includes excerpts from those interviews, which are interspersed with Bogdanovich's own comments and run for a total of about 15 minutes. In them, Lang talks about his relationship with MGM producers, his philosophy of film style, and the process by which he became acquainted with American culture (he read a lot of comic books, apparently). Bogdanovich talks quite a bit about his own relationship with Lang, which was friendly but came to an acrimonious end in disputes about which Bogdanovich thankfully doesn't go into much detail. There isn't any bitterness in his commentary, though, and it's clear that he admires Lang's immense talent, as well as his moral seriousness and occasional warmth, while finding his tendency toward petty tyranny irritating.
Bogdanovich doesn't seem very interested in Fury itself, which he sees as a film fatally lacking in focus due to the compromises that Lang was forced to make at MGM. I think he underrates the movie. It's certainly flawed, and the tensions between Lang's intentions and those of the studio are always apparent; for me, though, the powerful and unsettling elements overwhelm the conventional and forgettable ones. There are few American films of the 1930s (or any other period) that refuse so stubbornly to affirm the essential wholesomeness of American values, and Fury presents that refusal in ways that manage to be both austere and beautiful.
Like I said with Vera Drake, this one makes me a little wary of verdicts.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary by Director and Film Scholar Peter Bogdanovich, with Audio Footage from His Interviews with Director Fritz Lang
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