The United States of America
There is a famous scene in Fritz Lang’s M (1931) where a group of townspeople suddenly mob a random man during a panic caused by a recent string of child murders. The unsuspecting man had made the mistake of giving a little girl the time of day. At first, a large man appears and accuses him of bothering the girl. When the man rightfully objects, onlookers swarm around him. Raised voices lead to shouts. Shouts lead to screams. And before the poor man can object, he is attacked by the crowd. Five years after Lang released M, he would direct another penetrating examination of mob mentality and crowd psychology. It would be the first film Lang directed after fleeing to the United States from the looming specter of Nazism. Loosely based on a real life incident where two men were lynched in Santa Clara, California in 1933, the film, simply titled Fury, would prove to be one of Lang’s most angry and cynical.
At the beginning of the film we find Joe Wilson, a well-meaning auto mechanic, as he embarks on a long journey to meet his fiancée, Katherine Grant, in California. These early scenes chug along with an obnoxious, plasticine kitsch. Joe, played by Spencer Tracy, seems a bit too idealistic and well-off for an auto mechanic, happily popping an occasional peanut in his mouth from his pocket as he laughs at the world around him. Katherine, played by Sylvia Sidney, seems a bit too doe-eyed and innocent. The world seems a bit too bright and friendly. Indeed, one could easily be fooled into thinking that the projector had accidentally run the wrong film. Is this the same Fritz Lang whose most famous film involved a child murderer?
Joe setting off on his trip. There are WAY too many people smiling in this picture for it to be from a Fritz Lang film...
But things take an unusual turn during Joe’s journey. He stops in a small town for some gas. However, the townsfolk seem strangely unnerved, their eyes swiftly shifting all over this outsider. Unbeknownst to Joe, the town had recently suffered the loss of a little girl to two kidnappers. And even more unfortunately for Joe, one of the kidnappers supposedly had a fondest for peanuts. The sheriff decides to hold Joe overnight while they investigate him. However, rumor and hearsay quickly spreads throughout the town that the sheriff has one of the kidnappers in the jail. The police stripped Joe’s car in the search for ransom money, but failed to find any. However tales start to spread about how the “prisoner” had a suspicious amount of money in his possession. How much? $100! No, $1,000! No, it was $10,000! Gossip swirls around until the townsfolk are convinced that the police are holding a vicious, unrepentant kidnapper who was caught with all the ransom money.
The gossip spreads...
A mob forms. The sheriff tries to maintain the peace, but the people are restless. Sensing a possible riot, the sheriff calls in the National Guard. But word reaches the governor who stops them from being deployed. He’s up for re-election, y’see, and voters don’t like it when the National Guard gets involved in their business. The crowd loses control and storms the jailhouse. When they are blocked by the sheriff and his deputies, they set the jailhouse on fire, laughing and jeering at the heinous criminal getting his just reward.
Miraculously, Joe survived the fire and escaped. However, having survived a lynching, Joe Wilson is a changed man. He desires nothing more than vengeance on his would-be killers. When twenty-two townsfolk are put on trial for his murder, he gleefully listens as they slowly crack under pressure. He knows that if found guilty, the townsfolk would be given the death penalty. But he doesn’t care. He wants them to suffer. When the trial seems to stall from lack of evidence, he quickly mails the judge incriminating memento as an “anonymous towns-member.” Soon Katherine discovers that Joe is alive and begs for him to appear before the court, thereby saving the townsfolk’s lives. What is Joe to do? Appear and let off the people who gladly tried to murder him without evidence or a trial? Or should he let them the ultimate punishment?
With Fury, Lang rips asunder the picturesque image of small-town America. The seemingly incorruptible American justice system is ultimately wielded by Joe Wilson to prosecute the townsfolk. Rather than trying to correct an egregious sin, the townsfolk become entombed in silence, refusing to indicate any of their peers as members of the lynch mob. While a news camera captured several hundred people participating in the mob, the entire population of the town was apparently “asleep that night” or “out at their cabin in the woods.” Even Spencer Tracy, no stranger to diverse roles but usually associated with kind characters, transforms into a snarling, angry shadow of his former self.
Joe Wilson threatening his loved ones to keep quiet that he's alive.
It has been argued that once Lang moved to America he lost his eye for formal composition and ultra-stylized cinematography. However, Fury proves this assumption wrong. The striking black-and-white photography, courtesy of Joseph Ruttenberg, transforms the town and courthouse into hellish reflections of man’s most primal nature. It also warrants mention that Lang had not yet lost his taste for silent film language while making Fury. There are several scenes that demonstrate his skill for storytelling with visual language. Take an early scene where the town gossip mill first begins to turn. We are treated to several shots of different people embellishing the story with each re-telling. At one point, a flock of squawking hens are superimposed on top of a couple of gossiping old ladies. Such a sequence makes perfect sense for those familiar with silent film language. However, if such a technique was used in a modern movie, it would probably be received with raucous laughter.
What could have been a simple courtroom crime drama was wielded to make no less a commentary on American society as M was to Weimar Germany. While Lang would go on to make several of his greatest films in America, for many, once he left Europe the thrill was gone. Once he was crushed into the unforgiving mold of the Hollywood studio system, Lang became just another peddler of cheap B-movies. But these people are wrong. Just one viewing of Fury will suffice to silence them.