Fury (Fritz Lang, 1936)
‘(…) the law doesn’t know that a lot of things that were very important to me – silly things maybe – like a belief in justice, and an idea that men were civilized, and a feeling of pride that this country of mine was different from all others – the law doesn’t know that those things were burned to death within me that night.’
Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy), standing before the court and delivering a monologue for the ages
Honest, hard-working gas station owner Wilson, determined to collect enough money to set up a life for himself in Chicago with his fiancée (Sylvia Sidney) who waits for him back in her hometown, is on his way to see her when he’s arrested in a small town and held in suspicion for a crime he didn’t commit. From the window of his prison cell, Wilson watches in helpless horror as distorted gossip and a few frenzied voices whip up the townspeople into a frothing mob ready to burn the jail building down, him inside.
As a profound and unapologetic expose of society’s underlying injustice and potential for mob violence (powerful even with the ‘final embrace’ coda imposed by the studio on the director), Lang’s Fury is a fascinating American masterpiece; especially bold coming from a filmmaker daring, with his very first American film (and as he would do with his second, the equally brilliant You Only Live Once), to wag a finger in the face of his adopted country, stating in no uncertain terms that the potential for fascism isn’t just the problem of Hitler’s Germany that he had just escaped.
Aesthetically, it has the effectively grim and stark feel of many of the powerful social justice films of the 1930’s (a decade considered by many film historians, paired with the 70’s, as one of two golden ages of Hollywood filmmaking), merged with the dark vibrant flourishes of Lang’s phantasmagoric silent German cinema (the noir-style lighting, the imposing quasi-fantastic figure of Wilson that emerges post-jail burning – rigid, with an impossibly large hat, a terrifying form of justice as vengeance — and the grotesque close-ups on the leering individual townspeople as they watch the building burn, with a woman even holding her baby higher for a better view).
With one of the lead voices leading the gathering frenzy being an anti-union man — one just passing through after having acted as a strike-breaker in a nearby town for a streetcar company — and the state’s governor painted as someone far too concerned with keeping his image ‘clean’ to dare call in the National Guard to quell the growing potential violence, it’s amazing to witness – almost breathtaking, in fact — another example from this progressive time in cinema (just before World War II would break out and demand American conformity, which even Lang would acquiesce to, perhaps speaking to how he managed to escape being blacklisted by the 1950’s commie-hunting career-destroying House of Un-American Activities Committee).
The last half or so of the film is the trial of the twenty-two townspeople for the supposed murder of Wilson (he’s alive, of course, crazed with the desire for revenge, in hiding, with his dog having been killed during the mob attack) and even here the open ideological critiques are profound, with the DA’s trenchant observations when one of the witnesses (the sheriff no less who was beaten unconscious as he tried to prevent the mindless attack) blames the lynching on ‘men from out of town’ (with the DA reminding the jury of the ‘easy habit of putting on foreigners events that disturb their own conscience’).
Witnessing the horrifying rise of Hitler clearly left a deeply misanthropic strain in Lang (well, that, and has own extreme self-destructive egomania and narcissism) but one that fortunately wasn’t myopic; fascism wasn’t simply a German problem; he could see it as a terrifying underlying irrational threat that could rise anywhere, even in a land proclaiming justice and democracy. Telling the tale of an entire American town rallying behind and lying for the mob who lynched an innocent man, even after they knew he was innocent (with it based upon true events from a few years previously, no less), said it all.
Ultimately, Tracy’s Wilson disowns his rage, at the expense of saving the townspeople who meant to mindlessly kill him. Lang’s first two American films, Fury and the equally powerfully stark and unrelenting You Only Live Once (1937), which I already jotted down and posted my thoughts on, were brilliant portraits of America as a land where redemption can only be found through personal transformation (as it is at the end of each of the films, with both male heroes – Tracy herein and Henry Fonda in Once — becoming almost Christ-like in their final acts, with their ever-faithful brides, both played by Sidney as adoring Madonna, there to bare witness and accept their forgiveness), as the corrupt system, be it fascist or capitalist, is much more likely to destroy them as ‘common man’ than to protect him.