#176) Fury (1936)
OR “Law & Order: Burn Victims Unit”
Directed by Fritz Lang
Written by Lang and Bartlett Cormack. Story by Norman Krasna.
Class of 1995
The Plot: Loosely based on the real life Brooke Hart murder case, “Fury” is a crime drama with all-around good guy Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy) at its center. When Joe drives through the small town of Strand on the way to see his fiancée Katherine (Sylvia Sidney) in Capital City, he is pulled over by the police and suspected of being involved in a local kidnapping. He is held in the city jailhouse, and rumors start escalating about Joe and his “crimes”. The town’s citizens get whipped into a frenzy and form a lynch mob, burning down the jailhouse (and presumably Joe) in the process. What they don’t know is that Joe survived and aims to get vengeance on the 22 citizens who incited the mob. Can he get the mob convicted of murder without revealing that he’s still alive?
Why It Matters: The NFR calls “Fury” a “taut drama” with a “gritty story”, and incorrectly states that the film won the Best Original Story Oscar (See, “Seriously, Oscars?” below). Also included is an essay by fellow film blogger Raquel Stecher.
But Does It Really?: As Fritz Lang’s first American film it gets a pass for historical significance. As a drama, “Fury” takes its time getting started, but keeps getting better as it goes along. The film’s take on the American court system and small town mentality is refreshingly unfiltered for a code-era film. It’s not Fritz’s best work, but it’s good enough to earn “minor classic” status and a warranted place on the list.
Shout Outs: No direct references, but one of the guys in the mob does a pretty decent Popeye impression.
Everybody Gets One: Sylvia Sidney spent most of the ‘30s as a leading lady of the studio system, most the ‘40s as fading “box office poison”, and the ‘50s onwards as a successful character actor. Fritz Lang insisted on casting her as Katherine in “Fury”. Sidney is best known today for one of her last roles: Juno the afterlife caseworker in “Beetlejuice”.
Wow, That’s Dated: There’s the standard dated qualities like radio as a primary news source, and the novel idea of using film as courtroom evidence, but we also get enough brief digs at “redskins” to make John Ford proud.
Take a Shot: No one says “fury” at any point in this film.
Seriously, Oscars?: “Fury” received one nomination: Original Story for Norman Krasna. Despite what the NFR’s official write-up says, the film lost to “The Story of Louis Pasteur” (Original story by…God?) Spencer Tracy wasn’t nominated for Best Actor due to already being nominated in that category for “San Francisco” (despite his role in that film being a supporting one). And while he received no praise for his work in this film, Walter Brennan won the very first Best Supporting Actor award that same year for “Come and Get It”.
- The film opens with the “any similarities is purely coincidental” disclaimer we see nowadays during the end credits. Back then basing a film even tangentially on real-life events was risky.
- Yes, that’s Terry (aka Toto from “The Wizard of Oz”) as Joe’s dog Rainbow. She made this film when she was just 21 years old (in dog years).
- I love the transition from Joe’s handwritten letters to telegrams. Nice subtle way of saying he’s come into some money.
- You can see the constraints of the studio system closing in on Fritz Lang. I suspect he would have used a lot more jump cuts if the studio didn’t dictate scene wipes.
- Hector the barber has some serious Sweeney Todd tendencies there.
- I don’t mind the game of telephone that goes through the town, but does it have to be primarily busy-body housewives? They even have superimposed footage of hens at one point. This ain’t “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little”.
- The lynch mob scene is pretty terrifying. Thank god we reserve our national mob mentality to Twitter these days.
- The first half of the film is kinda slow, but things really pick up once we get to the courtroom. It helps that courtroom proceedings are inherently dramatic.
- Spencer Tracy is one of my favorite actors, but he’s not quite at his natural Spencer Tracy-ness with this performance. It’s not bad acting, it just doesn’t have the relaxed charm I associate with the man. Put him alongside Katharine Hepburn, see if that helps.
- My one question: How did the newsreel team get that many angles of the lynch mob?
- Part of the reason the first half is a bit slow is because it’s mostly set-up. Once the pay-offs start happening in the courtroom, things get exciting. It really showcases how solid the screenplay is.
- There were some very obvious reshoots for the last scene. Spencer Tracy’s hair and suit continuity is way off.
- Fritz Lang continued making films in Hollywood for another 20 years, although none were as well received as his earlier German expressionism. He did, however, direct another NFR entry, the 1953 film noir drama “The Big Heat”.
- Another film based on the Brooke Hart murder case was released in 1950, Cyril Endfield’s “The Sound of Fury”, aka “Try and Get Me!”
- Spencer Tracy once again played a guy named Joe seven years later in… “A Guy Named Joe”.
Further Viewing: Fritz Lang’s early German films that the NFR can’t claim, 1927’s “Metropolis” and 1931’s “M”.