Wednesday, February 16, 2011
[This is a contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir), the second Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films and Self-Styled Siren. The blogathon has been organized for the benefit of the Film Noir Foundation, who do important work to restore and preserve the noir heritage. Please consider donating to the Foundation during this week. The blogathon will run from February 14-21, and during this time I'll be posting about some noirs to raise awareness of the blogathon and its worthy cause. The 1936 film I'm writing about today is based on the same story that later provided the impetus for Cy Endfield's 1950 The Sound of Fury, which is the film that is targeted for preservation by this particular blogathon.]
Fritz Lang's Fury is a harrowing film with a preachy but important message at its core. It was Lang's first Hollywood film, and it is obvious that he wanted his American debut to be a film that meant something, a film that, in a way, sent a message about what Lang saw as distinctively American values and vices. It's thus a film about justice and injustice, about goodness and corruption, about the loss of faith in the ideals upon which American democracy is built. Early on, in a scene in a barber shop, the customers discuss the American Constitution, with one right-wing man advocating for laws restricting the freedom of speech, suppressing those who say things that he disagrees with. The barber, an immigrant, speaks up, saying that the other man should read the Constitution, that such ideas run counter to the foundation of the country — he's read the Constitution, he says, because he had to in order to become a citizen, while those who are born here seldom bother. This seems like Lang's assertion of his own foreign perspective, his statement that, as an outsider, he's pointing out both what's best in this country and what threatens to destroy those great ideals, those noble concepts.
The film's central character, the ordinary working class guy Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy), suffers the loss of faith in these ideals over the course of this film. When the film opens, he's planning to marry his sweetheart Katherine (Sylvia Sidney), although the happy couple are first forced to spend a year apart in order to save up enough money to get married. Joe's an honest, upright man, a man who tries to pass his values and ideals on to his two brothers, Charlie (Frank Albertson) and Tom (George Walcott). Charlie's caught up in some dishonest activities, running around with a mob outfit, and in many other noirs this would provide the central conflict: one can see Joe getting pulled into Charlie's criminal world, drawn by greed, forced to sacrifice his goodness and his honesty in the pursuit of enough money to reunite him with his woman. Instead, Joe pulls Charlie up into the light, convincing his brother that this flirtation with lawlessness is misguided. Lang intentionally inserts the gangster movie references as a red herring, a hint at a different kind of movie, and Joe's casual rejection of those clichés establishes him as seemingly incorruptible, unshakable in his faith and righteousness. So many noir antiheroes spiralled to their doom through this kind of temptation, but Joe is not swayed — and he spirals to his doom anyway.
Joe's sense of faith in goodness — the idea that a good life is its own reward — is eventually shattered, in the most dramatic way. The film's centerpiece is a jaw-dropping, heart-squeezing sequence of wrongful imprisonment and tragedy, as anxiety-inducing as any of Hitchcock's nightmarish "wrong man" scenarios. Joe gets mistakenly identified as being involved in a prominent kidnapping case, gets put into a small town jail, and while he's waiting for his innocence to be proven, he finds that the townspeople don't want to wait, that they want swift, brutal punishment for the man they believe to be a kidnapper. Lang's exaggerated vision of small town gossips and petty rabble-rousers transforming into a bloodthirsty lynch mob is patently artificial and stylized, but it's no less affecting for its contrivances. What matters is the impression that the institutions of civilization and democracy are horribly fragile, that at any moment the veneer of decency and justice can be peeled away, replaced by a mob mentality that overruns all of the values usually upheld in this country — or in any other country; after all, Lang had just left Germany in the early years of the Nazi government. What's striking about these sequences is that even in this nightmare vision of society run amok, Lang doesn't present the onset of hysteria and violence as inevitable: a few voices of reason do speak up and sway the crowd back from the brink, only to be overpowered again by other, less reasonable voices. And it's telling that the voice that finally does push the crowd fully over the edge is the voice of a strikebreaker, a man who'd just come from violently suppressing workers in a nearby town, and who now advocated similarly violent and horrible action in this town.
In the scene where the lynch mob starts gathering, pouring out into the streets towards the jail, a black man is nearly pushed aside by the swinging doors of a bar as the angry crowd races out. The man leaps up onto a table, hiding in the corner, out of the path of the enraged townspeople, and he remains in the back of the frame as the crowd rushes by. It's obvious that Lang is giving a little nod to this story's real subtext, to the real injustice that his film is, at root, really about. "Lynching" is a loaded word, a word with a real racial subtext to it in American history, and there's no escaping the obvious fact that all of this film's bold courtroom speeches about the prominence of lynchings in America are directed primarily at the lynchings of black men by white mobs. The film is, like many Hollywood films of the era, in code — it's quite possible that a film about a black man being lynched would have been impossible to make, and the enactment of a lynching story with a white innocent standing in for a black one allows Lang to make his observations about justice, revenge and the hatred and evil that can be so easily stirred up from petty motivations in otherwise normal people.
The lynching itself — the burning of the jail, with Joe inside, looking on in horror as law and order fall apart outside — is one of the most absolutely horrifying and sad sequences in cinema. Its impact is like slamming into a brick wall, as the fearsome, raw emotions of this sequence are unlike anything else in the film to that point. When Katherine arrives just in time to see the building engulfed in flames, with Joe at a barred window screaming, Lang holds a closeup on her stunned, horrified face, her eyes wide and glossy with tears, her mouth trembling open to murmur denials, as though she could wish away what she's seeing. These closeups are devastating, as is the hushed silence of the crowd as they watch the jail burn, stoically admiring the results of their actions, with Katherine's grief lost amidst the crowd, singled out only by Lang, who alternates closeups of Katherine with Joe at his barred window, even though the latter doesn't see his would-be bride and her horror.
The film's second half, after this pivotal event, chronicles the disruption of the American dream by this kind of hatred and violence. It is, inevitably, somewhat preachy and didactic, with plenty of courtroom speeches and showboating by the unnamed district attorney (Walter Abel), who often comes across as smug even though he's technically on the side of good. Compared to the bracing, darkly beautiful quality of Lang's images of the imprisonment and fire, it's of course a letdown when the film shifts almost entirely to courtroom theatrics, but the film's hammering sloganeering clearly comes from a place of real feeling. As a result, the film remains passionate and engrossing even when the courtroom scenes kill the momentum of the story. This is a fascinating film, a rumination on the justice system and the concept of revenge, but even when it threatens to become a wordy tract on these subjects, the film's strong emotional foundation prevents the speeches from overwhelming the characters.