Friday, June 19, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Fury"

"Fury" is one-half of a great movie.

This 1936 film was Spencer Tracy's big break-out role, and also marked the Hollywood debut of the great German director Fritz Lang, who had wisely fled to the States in the wake of Hitler's rising persecution against the Jews. Alas, his American films would never reach the pinnacle of "Metropolis" or "M."

The first, and best, half of "Fury" is an exploration of mob mentality, as innocent everyman is persecuted for a crime he didn't commit. The second half is a revenge story/courtroom drama, as Tracy connives to get his comeuppance against those who did him wrong.

The second half is not bad -- it's just that we've seen it a million times before. The revenge story is a common cinematic theme, in everything from "The Count of Monte Cristo" to "Darkman."

And the fact that Tracy's character, Joe Wilson, does not actually participate in the trial (because everyone thinks him dead) means he's essentially on the sidelines. So most of the attention is focused on his fiance, Katherine Grant, who does the whole damsel-in-emotional-distress thing. Perhaps this is not a coincidence, since Katherine is played by Sylvia Sidney, who was a bigger star than Tracy at the time, and in fact got top billing in the film.

Joe basically just hangs out in a seedy motel, listening to the trial on the radio, and occasionally manipulating events in his favor.

The first half is where Fritz Lang really shines. Joe is on his way to marry Katherine after a long separation, and gets pulled over by some bumpkin deputies. He bears a superficial resemblance to the description of one of a trio of kidnappers, so he gets hauled into jail until the district attorney can figure out whether he's really involved.

But one of the deputies, angry at being teased at the local barbershop about their lack of progress on the kidnapping case, blurts out that they've got a man in custody. A whispering campaign -- perpetrated mostly by women, interestingly -- soon reaches the ears of some rowdies at a local bar, enjoying the suspension of Prohibition. They convince themselves the man must be guilty, and don't want to wait for the law to take its meandering course.

The group keeps saying they just want to talk to Joe Wilson to ascertain the truth for themselves, but it quickly devolves into mob mentality, with a lynching the inevitable outcome. Meanwhile, Joe cowers in his jail cell with his dog, Rainbow, who escaped his own confinement to be with his master.

There's a great scene where the mob is confronting the sheriff, who refuses to give in. Lang sends his camera fleeing over the faces in the crowd, showing how their passion is stirred by the shared sentiment. It's as if the crowd is a dutch oven, melting the diverse ingredients into a single concoction, and heating it to boiling point.

Despite the way it careens into a totally different track halfway through, "Fury" is a worthwhile look at a rising star, and the devolution of the crowd.

3 stars

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