During my UPenn ugrad Nazi Cinema course, Fritz Lang stuck in my memory due to his powerful M (1931) showing with a shockingly chubby Peter Lorre. The lecture talked about the duplicity in the German language with whether the title Mörder could be translated as Murder or Murderer. This sparked renewed readings into whether Hans (Lorre) was guilty or a preyed upon innocent. Lang’s rejection of Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbel’s offer to be head of the German Cinema Institute (Leni Riefenstahl eventually accepted the offer) placed a noose nearby. Aware of potential harm, Lang had transferred most his wealth from Germany and fled to a different flytrap of Hollywood in mid-1934.
Film Forum nourished this historic moment in Fritz Lang in Hollywood series (January 28 – February 10th). Locating this print is an effort coupled with finding venues to screen. Thus the opportunity to watch Lang’s Fury (1936) could not be overlooked. Opting to watch without background information to the plot and cast, I delighted when I recognized Spencer Tracy and Walter Brennan named in the opening credits. Text suspended with booming serious orchestra music set the mood.
Large doe eyed Katherine (Sylvia Sidney) beckons audiences into the sentimental prattle with Joe (Spencer Tracy, longtime “companion” and acting partner with Katharine Hepburn), her paramour. Gazing at bedroom furniture displays behind glass panes, Katherine and Joe imagine future space shared with a hint of sadness. At first, considerations of conspiring, weary cheaters came to mind until conversations in the next scene. Katherine must leave Joe for a better paying job to cement financial peace of mind before their nuptials. This long-distance relationship has a sentence of 1 year, more or less.
Lang establishes Joe’s tried and true personality. Audiences watch Joe reprimand his wayward brothers from seedy gangster characters early on, but this moral barometer will break under Barlett Cormack and Lang’s screenwriting based on Norman Krasna’s Mob Rule. Quickly, Lang pulls narrative into urgency and drama as Joe makes a carefree voyage to finally meet his love. Something needs to go wrong in a plummeting nosedive…
Joe is mistaken for a kidnapper.
His cutesy ingestion of salted peanuts furthers his problems. Lang exploits the danger of misinformation and human flaws with overlays of distant humor at their literal chicken squawking. Male responses surge into proaction and violence. An appetite for lynching grows intensely. As tensions escalate, political selfishness cancels police back-up (stupidly) handicapping the sheriff’s ability to contain the crowd. The crowd lays siege to the prison and sets fire to the structure. With Joe stuck inside behind bars, Katherine sees his face amidst the flames and faints. Joe is presumed dead especially with the added benefit of tossed dynamite sticks from the locals. Lang masterfully echoes his German films where mass hysteria and bottom lighting makes monsters of participants.
Joe manages inexplicably to escape, but not without darkness seeping into his being. Revenge is his creed. Thoughts of Katherine or symbolically his compassion and ability to love are not considered at all. Strongly demonstrating this change, Lang has Joe demand for no light. His shadowed face is marble and stoic. He recruits his brothers to wage a court case against the mob under the assumption of his death. He wants them hung for their behavior. A New York attorney (oh, the built-in material for script jostling) prosecutes these Midwestern wrongdoers. The lawyer is enjoined by Joe’s two brothers and sole willing to testify witness, Katherine. Eventually, Joe must decide between lust for death versus lust for life.
It is Hollywood, so you know how it ends, yet what fine entertainment it brings.