Sunday, July 19, 2015
Film Review: Fury
Fritz Lang's "Fury" (1936) is one of the most powerful films I ever seen. That is quite a statement considering the man who directed it is best known for masterpieces like "Metropolis" (1927) and "M" (1931). Back when I created a list of the best films of the 1930s I made sure to include it. When I composed a list of the 100 greatest movies I remembered to recognize it. I embrace "Fury" as the greatest American movie Fritz Lang directed.
Unfortunately when Lang left Germany in 1934 for Paris and eventually America, the critics (sheep) and the public never recognized his greatness again until decades later after re-evaluating his films. The damage was done however and today his work is not as well known as it should be to American audiences particularly younger movie fans. "Fury" was his first American movie.
"Fury" is the story of moral authority. A terrible event occurs, a mob attempts the lynching of a man. The victim isn't killed but miraculously survives. The mob wants to pretend the event never happened. The victim vows revenge. Who is right in this situation?
"Fury" is one of those movies that grabs you and doesn't let go. It makes you face the sinister nature of man. Perhaps even confront feelings which lurk inside of you. It is on a list of movies that makes me pity society. It shows the true violent nature of the world we live in. A world where individuals are filled with hate and anger. It shows humans are nothing more than savage animals.
The movie can serve multiple meanings. In America lynching has been historically associated with race crimes and white supremacist lynching black people. But the movie can also serve as a commentary on what made Lang leave Germany. When Lang left his homeland the Nazis were in power. The movie is a strong indictment against "mob mentality". People wandering aimlessly fighting a cause they don't have all the facts about.
In the end "Fury" offers a nice Liberal message about due process. Doing the right thing. Not allowing our emotions to get the best of us. Not acting out on our violent impulses. This is fitting considering it comes from the same man who directed "M". "M" was the story of a child murderer who is captured by a mob, angry parents, all who want the murderer killed. But one person stands up and says the murderer is clearly mentally disturbed. You cannot kill him. You must place him in a mental institution. It is the right thing to do. The moral and just thing to do. And so in "Fury" we get the same message. Do we, as humans, have the strength and courage to do the right thing when we have been wronged?
The man is Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy). As his name suggest he is an "average Joe". He always tries to do the right thing and stay out of trouble. He is in love with Katherine (Sylvia Sidney, who gets top billing). They plan to marry as soon Joe has saved enough money. With the prospect of a better job, Katherine moves to Washington. Within a few months Joe will meet her there. The months pass, Joe runs his own business, a gas station, and saves up enough money to go to Katherine in Washington.
While driving through a small town, Strand, Joe is arrested by the police. In this small town a gang of three men have kidnapped a child. Joe fits the description of one of the men. Although the town's sheriff cannot prove anything he must keep Joe overnight until the District Attorney can arrive and the governor sends help to protect the jail.
The townspeople learn the sheriff has arrested a man in connection with the kidnapping. Because of the townspeople simple mindedness and thirst for blood, they conclude, surely if the police arrested a man, he must be guilty! You never heard of the police doing the wrong thing, did you? And so the news spreads, a gossip always does, and more and more people get that thirst for blood and make-believe justice. One by one they join together and head to the jail and demand the sheriff show them the prisoner. The sheriff tries to calm the people down telling them there is no proof the man being held is guilty. But, you know how savage people are. Once they have an idea in their head, heaven help us if you can get them to see the error of their ways. And so they attack. They break into the jail and try to capture Joe, who is locked away in a cell. When the mob can't get him they decide to set the jail on fire. One way or another Joe is going to die.
News makes it way to Katherine, who tries to protect Joe by heading to the jail. She is not able to make it in time and sees the mob set the jail on fire and through the cell's window they see Joe, desperately pleading for help, while they throw rocks at him, to keep him away from the window. The fire department arrives and may be able to help Joe but the townspeople decide to throw dynamite in the jail causing it to explode. Katherine faints and suffers a terrible trauma from witnessing the incident.
Joe didn't die in the explosion though. Everyone thinks he is dead including Katherine. Joe is tormented by what happened to him. He relives the moment over and over again in his mind. How could humans be so despicable? How can people succumb to such violent impulses? This builds a hatred in Joe. He vows revenge. He learns the townspeople can be trialed for first degree murder for his "death"
The town learns Joe was innocent after the real kidnappers are captured. So the people do what people normally do after they commit a bad act. They pretend it never happened so they can go on living their ordinary lives and tell themselves they aren't bad. They simply made a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes, right?
The question becomes can Joe allow the people involved with breaking into the jail to die themselves and be convicted for murder when Joe didn't die? Does that make Joe just as sinister as the townspeople? In other words, do two wrongs make a right?
What makes "Fury" such a great movie is the intense feelings and range of emotions it makes the viewer go through. You can understand Joe's desire for revenge and yet you can understand the moral argument being made. We ask ourselves, what side do we far on? "Fury" is hard-hitting. It is a visceral experience. The writing was nominated for an Academy Award, The film's only nomination. But you have to give credit to Lang and Tracy too. Tracy makes us believe everything we see on screen. Lang, like so many great filmmakers, holds a mirror to society and forces us to stare and the ugliness within ourselves, just as the lynch mob must face themselves and images of what they did.
This may make some feel "Fury" is preachy. The characters give long speeches about justice and society. There is none of that. At least I never came away feeling that way. The movie's message is obvious but not pushy. It doesn't beat us down. Another admirable quality of the movie.
That Lang never received the respect his work merited in this country makes me flat out mad. Do you know Fritz Lang never received an Academy Award nomination for best director? Do you know to this very day the Academy has not given him an honorary award? Lang's films changed after this. They became more psychological and fitted into the noir genre. Among his best include "Hangmen Also Die!" (1943). "The Woman in the Window" (1944), "Scarlet Street" (1945), "Cloak and Dagger" (1946), "The Big Heat" (1953) and "Human Desire" (1954). Granted, none of them quite grabbed me the way "Fury" does but Lang should not be ignored. See "Fury" and all of Lang's movies.