FURY, a still-potent 1936 blast at the scourge of mob mentality, has only dated in some of the acting from a few supporting players: otherwise its indictment of trial-by-hysteria and the quicksilver tilt to violence is sadly in step with our current riled state of incipient anarchy.
Good-natured garage owner ‘Joe Wilson’ (Spencer Tracy), driving to meet his pining fiancée ‘Katherine’ (Sylvia Sidney) is stopped by small-town cops and held on suspicion of being part of a kidnapping ring. ‘Evidence’ is scant and circumstantial, but gossip spreads vengeance fever like a plague and a whipped up crowd overwhelms the policemen. The jail burns to the ground, with innocent Joe trapped inside: Katherine arrives on the scene in time to see his terrified face at a barred window. The story then takes another turn when Joe’s brothers and the D.A. (Walter Abel) charge 22 of the rioters with murder.
German émigré director Fritz Lang’s first American movie was inspired by recent high-profile lynching’s; a brief outline called “Mob Rule”, spun by Norman Krasna, developed into a script by Lang and Bartlett Cormack. Having fled Nazi Germany, Lang was familiar with brute force and the power of a corrupted authority; his heimat classics Metropolis and ‘M’ were thematic brethren to this rare Hollywood foray into justice perverted. Though the overwhelming majority of lynching had been—and still were—directed at African-Americans, MGM overseer Louis B. Mayer wouldn’t allow Lang to touch that nerve: after all, we have to consider the Dixie box-office and likely backlash.
So Tracy takes the Everyman fall. He’s customarily strong, running a taut emotional gamut from tenderness and hope to indignation and horror, then wrath that goes from righteous to ruinous. He aced this taxing exercise along with scoring in the year’s biggest hit, one about a different kind of civic calamity, San Francisco. Eyes mirroring the soul, Sidney is striking, adding another keenly etched portrait to her gallery of Depression heroines (Street Scene, An American Tragedy, Dead End, You Only Live Once). Good work comes from Abel as the flamboyant D.A., Walter Brennan as a dimwitted deputy and Bruce Cabot as one of the smug instigators. As Joe’s brothers, Frank Albertson and George Walcott are a weak link: they overplay.
The escalating mob scenes are gripping in their malicious delirium; the back & forth parrying of the trial segment is facile in comparison. Joseph Ruttenberg’s camera work is excellent throughout. The script received an Oscar nomination. Not a big hit at 90th place, but still sufficient to cover costs, grossing $2,300,000 on a tag of $604,000. The results buoyed ambitious young producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz and ensured the imperious Lang (Tracy detested him) would go on to craft a number of stylish dramas. *
If the dog ‘Rainbow’ looks familiar, that’s because its Terry aka ‘Toto’. With Edward Ellis (the beleaguered sheriff) and Edwin Maxwell (smarmy political advisor).
* Sidney: “Fritz had a big ego, to put it bluntly. When he walked on the set, he was the master of the show. He wasn’t that tough on me, because he had to get what he wanted on film. He was rough on men…Tracy had a very rough time with him.”
Cameraman Ruttenberg, on Lang: “He was hell on everybody–actors, technicians, everybody.”
Mankiewicz heard crew members were scheming to drop a piece of equipment on the director: “Well, it went from that bad to much worse, till I was summoned from my house one night about four-thirty in the morning. Tracy said ‘Bring the lamp.’ He was going to drop it on Lang.”
Tracy: “Fritz Lang, the director, is a German.” Tell us how you really feel, Spence.