#5 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.
This is the Hollywood extension of M and Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge, a story of mob mentality and someone wronged exacting terrible vengeance upon those that committed the wrong. It’s Fritz Lang coming to America after his brief stint in France and applying his harder edged streak to the early days of the Hays Code, executing his vision as precisely as possible under the new strictures of the American system. Do those production and thematic demands compromise the story? Perhaps, slightly. However, Lang, having worked long enough under the strictures of Weimar era producers, knew how to make the best of this kind of situation.
Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy) says goodbye to his girl Katherine (Sylvia Sidney) on a train station in Chicago. They have to split up for a time so that Katherine can move out west to a better job, giving them time to save up money before they get married. Joe has to return to his little apartment with his two brothers Charlie (Frank Albertson) and Tom (George Walcott), an acrimonious situation because both Charlie and Tom are being sucked into the criminal element of the Windy City while Joe is determined to live his life on the straight and narrow. In the ensuing year, Joe and his brothers buy a small gas station, fix it up, and turn it into a successful business, giving him the stepping stone to make the next move with Katherine. Climbing into a new car, he rides out west to meet her near the small town of Strand.
He gets stopped by Bugs (Walter Brennan), a sheriff’s deputy, without an alibi to remove him from the local crime story of the year, a group of three men and a woman having kidnapped and ransomed a little girl, he gets pulled in. When one of the five dollar bills used to pay the ransom gets found in his possession, it starts the rumor mill around town, and that rumor mill is soon out of control. A mob forms, and they’re out to exact justice upon Joe Wilson for what they think he did. The sheriff (Edward Ellis) can’t keep them back, even with the use of tear gas, and the entire prison burns to the ground (echoes of Kriemhild’s Revenge right there).
The world is shocked, especially when the three men and woman turn themselves into the police the next day, showing the world that the lynching of Joe Wilson was unjust. The District Attorney (Walter Abel) sees it as a chance to exact justice on the town, a symbol in a larger fight against mob justice across America. Charlie and Tom want to help, but it’s the secret arrival of Joe that sets things off. Joe has been wronged. It’s not in the mob’s favor that he survived, he thinks. He survived despite them. In effect, they murdered him. He’s an avenging angel now, and he’s going to ensure that the mob gets the justice they need.
The second half of the film is essentially a trial, and it balances on the edge between a believable trial (procedures do seem to be followed) and a Hollywood trial (it all happens in the course of a few weeks, there’s surprise evidence). The DA works through the evidence, focusing on establishing the presence of the 22 defendants at the riot, getting antagonistic testimony from his own called witnesses who all give evidence that none of the 22 were there before, surprise!, he shows the court the secret evidence of film footage showing them all there. In a film of very strong emotional weight, the use of Hollywood-level editing in what is supposed to be a quickly filmed bit of newsreel footage captured by a single man rings the wrong note. It’s designed to make the identification easier and quicker, especially for the audience, as opposed to the fight that would break out between the attorneys over identification of small individuals on a screen taken from a camera a hundred feet away, but that doesn’t mean that it rings any truer.
Anyway, the mob is in for it. There’s rock-solid evidence that they were there, but there’s one final problem. The body of Joe Wilson was never found.
These issues get the film’s final twists and turns, twists and turns that end up revealing the truth to Katherine, and this is where the film gets it true Hollywood feel. If Lang had made this film in Germany ten years before, Katherine would have discovered the truth of Joe’s living state, and Joe would have gone through with his vengeance anyway. This being a Hays Code production, Joe moves away from his vengeance and rekindles things with Katherine.
Is that the wrong way to end the film? It’s less natural to Lang, that’s for sure. It makes the lesson more obvious and easily palatable to mass audiences, but it doesn’t change the nature of the lesson itself. Joe chooses redemption instead of falling into the pit of violence that consumed Kriemhild or the mob itself. It provides the lesson on the justice of the mob while also giving Joe a chance to redemption that he takes. Is it compromised? Perhaps in the strictest of senses in that Lang, alone, would have probably gone in another direction. Does it undermine the work as a whole? Not at all.
There are a host of wonderful performances throughout, but it’s Tracy and Sidney that anchors the whole thing. Tracy’s optimism of the first half is counterbalanced by his vengeful spirit in the second. He gives the more showy performance, especially on the tail end, but Sidney’s fragile and almost catatonic state that she slowly brings herself out of as the trial progresses is the real emotional foundation that the film rests upon. Her vulnerability gives way to an internal strength, holding to the ideals that Joe had abandoned and providing him with the path out of his vengeful spiral.
Lang came to Hollywood and made the most of his new location, language, and production environment. He made a film that fits really well in with his German work while declaring his presence in Hollywood with style, intelligence, and strong control over his actors.