Fury: Lang's American Masterpiece

Produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (before he became a director) at MGM, a studio that was the least likely to make such a grim film, “Fury” was based on Norman Krasna’s taut screenplay, probing mass psychology and mob violence in a small fictional town, Strand, Illinois.

The social context of the Depression is apparent from the first moments, when the two protagonists, Joe Wheeler (Spencer Tracy), and Catherine Grant (Sylvia Sydney) stand in front of a window display of elegant bedroom furniture and accessories for “the Fall Bride (the music plays Mendelsohn’s “Wedding March”), which they obviously cannot afford. Joe works in a gas station, but they are about to separate; Catherine leaves for another town to find employment.

Lang’s view of small town is most condemning, taking as his chief targets ignorance, greed, hypocrisy, bigotry, provincialism, and intolerance. Indeed, the strongest aspect of Fury is its recreation, almost textbook-like, of mass hysteria. Lang shows, step by step, the emergence of a group mind, irrational collective consciousness that goes beyond the individuals who compose it. Individuals in a crowd lose their rational values and forget their interests, their behavior motivated by emotional or biological instincts. In the climax, the mob storms the jail and sets the building on fire. It’s a brilliantly executed scene, boasting the precision of a mathematical model, with each detail adding or elaborating on the previous detail.

The events are not presented from a single point of view: Lang switches from the mob to the sheriff to Joe to Catherine and back to the mob. The film’s viewers become integrated into the scene; later, in court, the viewers watch the mob members watch themselves on screen. The evangelist woman, who pleads innocence, is shocked to see herself whirling a firebrand. The prosecutor’s use of a newsreel taken during the incident is innovative, because neither participants nor film viewers realize that such newsreel exists. Lang uses town folks to demonstrate that the proclivity for evil is omnipresent, and that, under specific circumstances, every human being is capable of committing nasty monstrosities.

With almost no exception, the film’s protagonists are bullies, bigots, and gossips–elements most likely to join or support Fascist movements. The barber explains the universal potentiality for crime in the following way: “people get funny impulses. If y’ resist ’em, you’re sane; if y’ don’t, you’re on the way to the nuthouse, or the pen.” In the 20 years he has been “strokin’ his razor across throats, there had been many a times, I’ve had an impulse to cut their Adam’s apples wide open.” “An impulse is like an itch, you got t’ scratch.”

The whole film abounds with objects of torture and acts of violence. In addition to the barber and his razor, the dim-witted Buggs (Walter Brennan) is nabbing flies while the sheriff interrogates Joe. In another sequence, Lang cuts from the jail to the hardware store, where ropes are hanging from the ceiling. A farmer tests a whip, snapping it venomously to punctuate his speech about Joe: “If all o’ us people just had the courage o’ our convictions, these vermin could vanish like spit on a hot stove!” It’s a far cry from the image of friendly farmers plowing the fields.

In a most impressive montage, Lang shows the exhilaration of violence, the burning of the jail: A woman holds up her child so that he gets a better view of the conflagration; a young boy eats his hot dog with hearty appetite; another woman kneels down in a religious ecstasy; and an adolescent sings joyfully, “I’m Popeye, the sailor man, tweet, tweet!” When Joe attempts to escape, the mob throws rocks at the window, forcing him to stay in.

Joe finally escapes from jail, letting the mob believe he’s dead. his speech (in what was Spencer Tracy’s most impressive performance to date) to brothers, asking them to take legal action against the lynchers, shows that the experience has turned him into a criminal seeking revenge: “I’m legally dead, and they’re legally murderers. That I’m alive is not their fault. I know ’em. A lot of ’em. And they’ll hang for it. But I’ll give them the chance they didn’t give me. They’ll get a legal trial, in a legal courtroom. They’ll have a legal defense and a legal judge, a legal sentence–and a legal death!”

His brothers protest, “you’re as bad as them!” and when Catherine finds out about his scheme, she is also appalled. “A mob doesn’t think, doesn’t know what it’s doing,” she says, “You might as well kill me, too, and do a good job of it!” But that’s precisely Lang’s point, to show the role reversal of victim and victimizer. Joe wants his aggressors to feel the fear and panic he had experienced. But even the more conscientious Catherine seeks revenge, though of a different kind. “I don’t want anything as blood thirsty as an eye for an eye, or a life for a life,” she states, “but I want those women to suffer, to feel what I felt. I want the woman who held up her baby to think about never seeing that baby again. I want all of them to know what it is to feel empty inside. Not to be able to cry, not to be able to think, not to want to live.”

Not one inhabitant protests the conspiracy of silence. That they are all cowards and collaborators is demonstrated in a passage in which the town’s “pious” women discuss the harmful consequences a lynching trial might have on its reputation.

First Woman: “My husband says it’s be a blessing if the community would forget what happened. It just leaves a bad taste.”

Second Woman: “Now, don’t you worry, Mrs. Garrett. Nobody’s going to cut off their noses to spite their faces by naming names.”

Third Woman: But if any one does, what will happen

Second Woman: Nobody’s going to talk. The responsible businessmen have decided it’s a community, and not an individual thing. So everybody’s got to stick together against the District Attorney.

Under pressure from Catherine and his own conscience, Joe decides to appear in jail. In his speech, he admits that the horrendous experience has shattered his belief in justice and civility. Joe used to be proud “that this country of mine was different from all others,” but those ideals “were burnt to death with me that night.” However, “the only way I could go on living, was to come here today,” and his only hope is that the experience has done those people “some good.”

Lang condemns the manipulative press (an issue that will become more prominent in films of the l970s) and its insatiable thirst for sensationalism. “What a shot this is,” says one journalist, “We’ll sweep the country with this stuff.” Lang simulates the buzzing of hundreds gossip-disseminating bees over this scene. Another citizen retorts that the Chamber of Commerce has discussed “what a great publicity break our capturing this Chicago fellow’s going to give our little city.”