12 May 2005 | BrandtSponseller
Famed German director Fritz Lang's first American film, Fury, is loosely based on a story by Norman Krasna, "Mob Rule", which itself was based on the tale of California's last public lynching, in 1933, of Thomas Harold Thurmond and John M. Holmes, the kidnappers and murderers of Brooke Hart, the "son" in San Jose's L. Hart and Son Department Store. Fury is a fine exploration (although not an analysis) of the mentality of vengeance, whether from a mob, as in the first half of the film, or from an individual, as in the latter half. It is loaded with fine acting and an unusually constructed script by Lang and co-writer Bartlett Cormack, although it is not without flaws.
Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy) is deeply in love with Katherine Grant (Sylvia Sidney). Wilson lives in the Chicago area in a small apartment with his two brothers, Charlie (Frank Albertson) and Tom (George Walcott). Wilson wants to marry Grant, but they're short on money. Despite the relationship hardships it will entail, Grant returns to Texas to work--she'll be making good money there, while Wilson tries to improve his lot in Illinois. Wilson finally manages to buy a gas station with his brothers, and earns enough to buy a car and take a road trip, with his dog Rainbow in tow, to meet Grant so they can get married. When he's almost there, Wilson is suddenly stopped by a sheriff's deputy in the small town of Strand. They question him about a kidnapping. Two minor details make him more suspicious, and so they decide to hold him in the town jail while the D.A. looks into his background. Rumors makes their way around the town and things go horribly wrong, bringing us to mob mentality, lynchings and vengeance.
Lynchings were an emerging social problem in the early 1930s. There were 60 known lynchings in the U.S. between 1930 and 1934. Beginning in 1934, the earliest of the "anti-lynching" bills was presented to the U.S. Congress, and that number grew to 140 different bills by 1940. The visual arts also voiced in on the issue--one museum held "An Art Commentary on Lynching" exhibition in 1934. So Fury was certainly pertinent to our culture at the time, and was one of many films to come, such as Mervyn LeRoy's They Won't Forget (1937) that centered on strong anti-lynching sentiments (believe it or not, there were also pro-lynching films, such as Cecil B. DeMille's This Day and Age, 1933).
It's interesting to note that although lynching was primarily a "racial"-oriented phenomenon, Lang was not allowed to comment on that very much. There are a couple shots of blacks in the film, but they are extremely innocuous. Anything even more slightly controversial was excised at MGM's (and specifically Louis B. Mayer's) behest.
Fury's structure is very unusual, contributing even more to its unpredictable, captivating nature. It begins as an almost bland romance while Lang sets up the characters and their slightly exaggerated innocence, turns into an interesting hardship film, briefly becomes a road movie, switches gears again when Wilson is arrested, and actually presents a profoundly impactful climax at the midway point--it seems as if the film could end there. The second half makes a major u-turn as what could be seen as an extended tag/dénouement becomes an in-depth courtroom drama that builds to a second climax. The second half allows Lang to explore the same vengeance mentality as the first half, except from an individual rather than the previous mob perspective.
Although the second climax denotes a fine work of art on its own--there are some very moving performances and developments towards the end of the courtroom stuff, the star attraction is the gradually building mob material in the middle. What begins as an annoyance for Wilson turns into widespread tragedy as the rumor mill gears up and easygoing conformism rears its ugly head. Of course it is well known that Lang came to America to escape Nazi Germany, where he had been asked to act as Hitler's minister of film, so Fury, although sometimes criticized as a commercial film for Lang, certainly had personal poignancy for him. Lang shows rumors gradually distending in a game of "Telephone" with serious consequences, and inserts a humorous shot of chickens to symbolize "clucking women". He shows how easily a situation can go from those kinds of increasingly misreported claims to dangerous action due to conformism. Most folks are shown as all too eager to go along with the crowd and avoid local conflict.
For a few moments, the mob mentality leads to a situation that presages John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). And overall, Fury is sometimes said to have anticipated film noir. However, despite some highly stylistic shots, such as the early, shimmering reflections of rain soaked windows on opposing walls, or the almost comically exaggerated action/reaction shots of the mob in full force (some of the more poignant material in the film), much of Fury's cinematography is more pedestrian. In his interview with Peter Bogdanovich that serves as the bulk of the DVD's "director's commentary", Lang states that he prefers simple, straightforward cinematography, to emphasize realism, or "truth". That may sound odd coming from the man who gave us Metropolis (1927), but at least for Fury, it is consistent.
But this isn't a flawless film. A few dramatic transitions are awkward, including two very important ones--the initial "capture" of Wilson, which is fairly inexplicable, and the final scene of the film, which leaves a significant dangling thread. But the underlying concepts, the performances and more often than not the technical aspects of the film work extremely well, making Fury an important film to watch.