1930s, 4/4, Drama, Fritz Lang, Review

Fury (1936)

#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.

Rating: 4/4

8 thoughts on “Fury (1936)”

  1. Would this be the first of the “Everyone thinks Guy is dead, but he isn’t, and he secretly takes revenge” movies?

    Also, full disclosure: I have not seen this movie. But it kind of sounds like a variant of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” without the dream stuff, and told from the main guy’s perspective..

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    1. I have to imagine that there was something before this. This was the 30s, and movies had been going on for more than twenty years. Surely someone had done the “they think I’m dead and I’m gonna get ’em” thing. Seems too standard, though I can’t think of any examples.

      Well, Freddy was a child murderer, and Spencer Tracy’s character was not. So there’s that…

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  2. Oddly, this was the ‘last’ Spencer Tracy movie I watched a few years back when I was taking a crack at his filmography. Odd because this is an early film in his career, he’d been working on named films about 6 years at this point but he was already showing the skill he’d display through most of his career. He plays affable better than anyone. Here, he gets to play vengeful and diabolical as well. Tracy always said acting was easy for him, life was hard. And he had a hard, secretive and transgressive life off camera. On camera, you couldn’t ask for better….eventually. He’s a little cheesy here in the second half and it doesn’t quite work for me.

    This is beginning (?) the long, long line of Fritz Lang ‘wrongfully accused man’ movies. It’s almost a trope with him, I wonder at that, if there’s something in his own backstory that keeps drawing him to these themes.

    The characters have more shades of gray, as with most American Lang movies, there aren’t a lot of good guys. Almost everyone is tainted or corrupt in some way. Of course the girl isn’t….in this one at least. Too often the women are saintly to the point that they feel unbelievable. That might be the studio involvement, Lang is dark enough without some point of light. But…no shadows without light.

    Speaking of, Sylvia Sydney begins her work with Lang here, we’ll be seeing her high cheekbones and trim figure again. She’s not my favorite actress and too many times in these movies, I’ll want to smack her. She lacks subtly and naturalism. We also have some other good character actors here, Walter Brennan and Bruce Cabot.

    The mob violence is an interesting ‘enemy’ here, as mobs figure in quite a few of his movies. And they were not rare in Germany, obviously. Though here at least, it wasn’t government-incited mobs. It does of course paint a grim picture of vigilantism, but that’s fiction for you. More often than not, lynch mobs killed the guilty, not noble innocents. It may not be legal, but it can be justice.

    The ending doesn’t quite work for me either, I think it wanted to be a serious revenge movie, instead it flirts and teases that. As a dog owner, can’t say I liked killing the dog, hits too close to home after losing Logan not too long ago.

    Visually and thematically, I wanted to like this more than I did.

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    1. I obviously like it more than you did. It’s fitting the square peg of Lang into the round hole of Hollywood before Hollywood started trying to reign him in which started with…his very next movie. Yes, there’s some evidence of it here (the studio apparently knocked Lang back when he wanted to cast a black man as the main character), but it’s very much the kind of movie he wanted to make, even if he was compromising from the start.

      I think he showed incredible skill at making his movie in the studio system.

      Sylvia Sidney seems to have been one of the few actors who actually liked Lang on some level. She was the driving force for getting him his next two jobs (You Only Live Once, and You and Me), which she, of course, starred in. She’s not the best female movie star of the 30s, but I think she works fine enough in secondary roles. I like her more here than in her next two movies with Lang where she is more of the star. As the saintly second-tier character, I think she works. Here, in Fury, she’s akin to Maria in Metropolis.

      The wrongfully accused man ends up feeling increasingly like one part of a large Hitchcock influence that increasingly permeates his work. By the early 50s, it seems obvious through the work that Lang was following Hitchcock’s career and using it as some kind of model. That may be manifesting here where Lang is taking the motif Hitchcock was using so frequently even in his British films and filtering it through his own obsessions and recent history. For a man who was not Aryan by definition and saw the capriciousness of Nazi rule up close, early 1930s Germany must have been terrifying. Taking that and managing to translate that fear to a decidedly American idiom is a surprising artistic success.

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