Movies We Like
“A mob doesn’t think. It doesn’t have time to think.” - Sylvia Sidney as Katherine Grant
Fritz Lang wasted no time in establishing his reputation in Hollywood as the master architect of the thriller. His first American film after having fled Hitler’s Germany is a searing indictment of the dark side of the American character that pulsates with an almost unbearable tension for its first half as a collision of combustible elements in a small town ignites into a shocking act of cold blooded mob violence. Lang wanted to do a film about the culture of public lynching in the U.S. and the curiously grotesque party atmosphere that has historically accompanied them. He felt that his protagonist would have to be guilty of the crime for which he was being lynched and that he should be African American in order for the story to truly resonate in this country and for the film to have the maximum impact. MGM would never agree to either of these stipulations, so he geared his story around a young Spencer Tracy as an American everyman in the wrong place at the wrong time, who faces the full unhinged brutality of a mob of townspeople calling for his blood.
It starts innocently enough. Tracy plays Joe Wilson (as in “average…”), a guy in love with the impossibly adorable Sylvia Sidney. They want to get married but need more time to save money. Katherine (Sidney) takes a job in another town. Tracy uses their time apart to start his own business with his brothers and, after a year of love letters and heartache, they are finally ready to reunite and get married. He heads out to meet her with his little dog in tow. (It should be mentioned here that Tracy’s dog Rainbow is played by none other than the same dog who played Toto in the Wizard of Oz, so if you want to see its lesser known work start here.) But only miles away from the small Midwestern town where Katherine is anxiously waiting for him at the bus depot, Joe is stopped at a checkpoint set up by another town’s Sherriff in hopes of catching a gang of kidnappers who have been terrorizing the area. He is brought in to the jailhouse for questioning and, after some minor circumstantial evidence possibly implicates him, he is thrown into a cell.
Up until this point the film has been a fairly average story of one working class couple’s courtship, separation, and near reuniting, but once Joe is put in jail all hell eventually breaks loose. Lang depicts the news that the Sherriff arrested someone who may have something to do with a sensational kidnapping story making its way through the town with a keen sense of the way the ritual of gossip works. In homespun settings full of dowdy housewives, barbers, and business leaders commiserating, the news spreads from one to the other with the story getting more outlandish every time it’s told, while the gossipers themselves grow ever more authoritative in their repeating of the details until what the townspeople think bears zero resemblance to the facts. It’s also interesting the way the story being repeated seems to pointedly reveal the subconscious anxieties of the townspeople where the big city kidnapper is reported to have laughed at their provincial ways.
Joe, who initially handles his unfortunate situation with good-natured compliance, soon grows worried as their suspicion of him shows no signs of abetting. He’s not allowed to see a lawyer, his dog is leashed next to the Sherriff’s desk, and Kate sits in the diner one town over by the bus station, staring into her coffee cup, knowing something is wrong. The tension escalates as the local citizenry grow angrier by the minute while sloshing back mugs of beer at a downtown saloon. After a whole day of gossip, fear mongering, and baseless allegations flying back and forth about who Joe Wilson really is the townspeople, drunk and disorderly, take to streets and march merrily towards the Sherriff’s office demanding to see Wilson. Husbands, wives, and children all parade down Main Street singing and clapping, oblivious to the murderous violence they are about to unleash, looking like a long lost Norman Rockwell painting of hell. The Sherriff and his men can hold back the mob for only so long and, without the assistance of the National Guard, they are eventually overtaken. Joe, terrified by what is happening to him, pleads for the chance to talk to the people and explain himself, but he’s ignored. The townspeople, acting as one unthinking mass, set fire to the building and, as night falls, there is a truly haunting shot of people of all ages with glazed, euphoric expressions on their faces as the building burns.
This first half of the film is masterful and it is perhaps not Lang’s fault that the second half doesn’t resonate quite as powerfully, nor does it keep up the palpable sense of dread that builds throughout the first half. But these are mere quibbles because Fury is a classic thriller with a degree of vitriolic social commentary that still manages to sicken over 70 years later.
Fury was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (Norman Krasna).