Based on the story "Mob Rule" by Norman Krasna. Joe Wilson and Katherine Grant are in love, but he doesn't have enough money for them to get married. So Katherine moves across the country to make money. Through the course of the movie, Fritz Lang shows us how a decent and once civilized man can become a ruthless and bitter man.
Sylvia Sidney ... Katherine Grant
Spencer Tracy ... Joe Wilson
Walter Abel ... District Attorney
Bruce Cabot ... Kirby Dawson
Edward Ellis ... Sheriff
Walter Brennan ... 'Bugs' Meyers
Frank Albertson ... Charlie
George Walcott ... Tom
Arthur Stone ... Durkin
Morgan Wallace ... Fred Garrett
George Chandler ... Milton Jackson
Famed German director Fritz Lang's first American film, Fury, is loosely based on a story by Norman Krasna, "Mob Rule", which itself was based on the tale of California's last public lynching, in 1933, of Thomas Harold Thurmond and John M. Holmes, the kidnappers and murderers of Brooke Hart, the "son" in San Jose's L. Hart and Son Department Store. Fury is a fine exploration (although not an analysis) of the mentality of vengeance, whether from a mob, as in the first half of the film, or from an individual, as in the latter half. It is loaded with fine acting and an unusually constructed script by Lang and co-writer Bartlett Cormack, although it is not without flaws.
Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy) is deeply in love with Katherine Grant (Sylvia Sidney). Wilson lives in the Chicago area in a small apartment with his two brothers, Charlie (Frank Albertson) and Tom (George Walcott). Wilson wants to marry Grant, but they're short on money. Despite the relationship hardships it will entail, Grant returns to Texas to work--she'll be making good money there, while Wilson tries to improve his lot in Illinois. Wilson finally manages to buy a gas station with his brothers, and earns enough to buy a car and take a road trip, with his dog Rainbow in tow, to meet Grant so they can get married. When he's almost there, Wilson is suddenly stopped by a sheriff's deputy in the small town of Strand. They question him about a kidnapping. Two minor details make him more suspicious, and so they decide to hold him in the town jail while the D.A. looks into his background. Rumors makes their way around the town and things go horribly wrong, bringing us to mob mentality, lynchings and vengeance.
Lynchings were an emerging social problem in the early 1930s. There were 60 known lynchings in the U.S. between 1930 and 1934. Beginning in 1934, the earliest of the "anti-lynching" bills was presented to the U.S. Congress, and that number grew to 140 different bills by 1940. The visual arts also voiced in on the issue--one museum held "An Art Commentary on Lynching" exhibition in 1934. So Fury was certainly pertinent to our culture at the time, and was one of many films to come, such as Mervyn LeRoy's They Won't Forget (1937) that centered on strong anti-lynching sentiments (believe it or not, there were also pro-lynching films, such as Cecil B. DeMille's This Day and Age, 1933).
It's interesting to note that although lynching was primarily a "racial"-oriented phenomenon, Lang was not allowed to comment on that very much. There are a couple shots of blacks in the film, but they are extremely innocuous. Anything even more slightly controversial was excised at MGM's (and specifically Louis B. Mayer's) behest.
Fury's structure is very unusual, contributing even more to its unpredictable, captivating nature. It begins as an almost bland romance while Lang sets up the characters and their slightly exaggerated innocence, turns into an interesting hardship film, briefly becomes a road movie, switches gears again when Wilson is arrested, and actually presents a profoundly impactful climax at the midway point--it seems as if the film could end there. The second half makes a major u-turn as what could be seen as an extended tag/dénouement becomes an in-depth courtroom drama that builds to a second climax. The second half allows Lang to explore the same vengeance mentality as the first half, except from an individual rather than the previous mob perspective.
Although the second climax denotes a fine work of art on its own--there are some very moving performances and developments towards the end of the courtroom stuff, the star attraction is the gradually building mob material in the middle. What begins as an annoyance for Wilson turns into widespread tragedy as the rumor mill gears up and easygoing conformism rears its ugly head. Of course it is well known that Lang came to America to escape Nazi Germany, where he had been asked to act as Hitler's minister of film, so Fury, although sometimes criticized as a commercial film for Lang, certainly had personal poignancy for him. Lang shows rumors gradually distending in a game of "Telephone" with serious consequences, and inserts a humorous shot of chickens to symbolize "clucking women". He shows how easily a situation can go from those kinds of increasingly misreported claims to dangerous action due to conformism. Most folks are shown as all too eager to go along with the crowd and avoid local conflict.
For a few moments, the mob mentality leads to a situation that presages John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). And overall, Fury is sometimes said to have anticipated film noir. However, despite some highly stylistic shots, such as the early, shimmering reflections of rain soaked windows on opposing walls, or the almost comically exaggerated action/reaction shots of the mob in full force (some of the more poignant material in the film), much of Fury's cinematography is more pedestrian. In his interview with Peter Bogdanovich that serves as the bulk of the DVD's "director's commentary", Lang states that he prefers simple, straightforward cinematography, to emphasize realism, or "truth". That may sound odd coming from the man who gave us Metropolis (1927), but at least for Fury, it is consistent.
But this isn't a flawless film. A few dramatic transitions are awkward, including two very important ones--the initial "capture" of Wilson, which is fairly inexplicable, and the final scene of the film, which leaves a significant dangling thread. But the underlying concepts, the performances and more often than not the technical aspects of the film work extremely well, making Fury an important film to watch.
If Fritz Lang had died or been killed by the Nazis (whom he detested and opposed)in 1933 or 1934, it is stunning to realize that his position as a great film director would have been assured. He would have already had METROPOLIS, SPIES, DR. MABUSE, and M down to establish his credentials as a master of cinematic art. But he left Germany to escape the real villains who were coming to power. And he ended up, after briefly staying in France, coming to the U.S. Most of his later films would be made in the U.S. FURY is his first American masterpiece - a study of mob violence, and the destructive forces it unleases in even the most decent people. Here, it is Spencer Tracy, the erstwhile victim of a lynch mob, who becomes demonic in retaliation for his own mistreatment at their hands. It would be a theme Lang would return to again and again in later films - Edward G. Robinson turning on Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea in SCARLET STREET is a good example.
Like many great crime films it is based on an actual incident that occurred in San Jose, California in 1933. Brooke Harte, the son of a wealthy department store owner, was kidnapped by two rather stupid men, Harold Thurmond and Jack Holmes, for a ransom, and drowned when they collected the money. Brooke had been a very popular young man, and when the men were caught a mob attacked the jail, and killed them (hanging at least Thurmond when he was still alive - Holmes was beaten to death in the jail). The incident gained notoriety around the globe (the Nazis had the nerve to use it to suggest Americans were violent degenerates - and frequently republished photos of the dead men as propaganda in World War II). It was hard to hide the story - the mobs were filmed attacking the jail, and (as mentioned above) the swinging bodies of the two kidnappers were photographed. Most people in America were appalled by the incident, but it had defenders. Governor James Rolph (former Mayor of San Francisco) defended the lynch mob beyond any reasonable point (Rolph was running for re-election, and in ill health - he would die before the reelection was held).
A fine account of the crime, SWIFT JUSTICE by Harry Farrell, only touches lightly on the Lang movie. The similarities with the newsreel trucks and even a Rolph-clone (Clarence Kolb, in a small but sinister role as a powerful man trying to convince the Sheriff - Edward Ellis - to leave the jail underprotected from the mob)are there. But Lang allows Tracy to survive, unlike Thurmond and Holmes. Also, in reality the newsreel footage was not clear enough (like that in the film) to be used against the defendants in their trial. In fact, nobody was ever indicted for the lynch murders of Thurmond and Holmes.
In what was his fourth film on his new MGM contract Spencer Tracy finally broke through the ranks and became an A picture star. Tracy had been in Hollywood for six years five of them with Fox. Most of his work there was relegated to B picture second features. In this, the first American film by Fritz Lang, Tracy emerges with a powerhouse performance of a man who nearly destroys himself in a quest for vengeance against the mob that nearly kills him by setting a jail on fire where he's being held on a suspicion of kidnapping.
Remember that this was the 30s with news of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial fresh in the minds of the movie-going public. Probably the most hated man in America was Bruno Hauptman, the Lindbergh kidnapping suspect. That's a dimension that can hardly be appreciated by seeing the video today. But Lang's direction of the mob scenes still retains the power to frighten.
Sylvia Sydney registers well as Tracy's fiancé and Bruce Cabot stands out as the local town bully who whips up the mob in the first place against the innocent Tracy being held in the town jail.
In the first of many climactic monologues Tracy comes forward and redeems himself from the twisted personality his victimization by the town mob has left. The speech is simple, direct, profound; pure Spencer Tracy. And that's as good as it ever gets.
* Fritz Lang wanted Spencer Tracy's character to be a lawyer, but the producers thought he should be more of a working man, so he became an auto mechanic.
* Terry, better known as Toto from The Wizard of Oz (1939), appears in this film as the dog that Spencer Tracy takes in from the rain at the beginning of the movie, becoming his traveling companion into the netherworld of small-town America.
* Script was based upon the 1933 kidnapping and murder of Brooke Hart, the son of the owner of Hart's Department Store in San Jose, California. The two kidnapping suspects were pulled from jail by a group of vigilantes, who dragged them across the street to St. James Park and lynched both of them.
* This was actress Sylvia Sidney's only film for MGM, and according to the papers of director Fritz Lang, he stipulated that she be cast in the part before he signed his contract with the studio.
* Additional information in the Fritz Lang papers indicates that Walter Brennan, who played "Bugs" Meyers, had an extended illness that necessitated a transfer of some of his "courtroom business" to George Chandler, who played Milton Johnson.
* According to modern sources, Fritz Lang was the first filmmaker to use newsreel footage as a courtroom device in a motion picture, and may have done so before it was used in an actual court case.