Fury (1936)


Savant uncovers the true, hidden ending to this Fritz Lang masterpiece. The moral outrage of Lang’s searing attack on lynch terror hasn’t dimmed a bit — with his first American picture the director nails one of our primary social evils. MGM imposed some re-cutting and re-shooting, but it’s still the most emotionally powerful film on the subject.

The Warner Archive Collection
1936 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 92 min. / Street Date August 2, 2016, 2016 / available through the WB Shop / 17.99
Starring Sylvia Sidney, Spencer Tracy, Walter Abel, Bruce Cabot, Edward Ellis, Walter Brennan, Frank Albertson, George Walcott, Arthur Stone, Morgan Wallace, George Chandler, Roger Gray, Edwin Maxwell, Howard C. Hickman, Jonathan Hale, Leila Bennett, Esther Dale, Helen Flint.
Joseph Ruttenberg
Film Editor Frank Sullivan
Original Music Franz Waxman
Written by Bartlett Cormack, Fritz Lang story by Norman Krasna
Produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Directed by Fritz Lang

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Just as there is a trio of classic ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ movies (You Only Live Once, They Live by Night, Gun Crazy), Hollywood produced a quartet of movies about lynching, each of them considered emotionally shattering in their day. Warner’s socially conscious true story They Won’t Forget buries the fact that its lynching victim was Jewish, but nails the complicity of prejudice and political ambition in its frightening tale of mob rule. Adapted from a best-selling novel, the wartime The Ox-Bow Incident chooses a western setting for its expression of the pure injustice of extra-legal vigilantism. The Sound of Fury (Try and Get Me!) is a key picture of the blacklist years. It goes the farthest in claiming that something is fundamentally wrong with the American system. In all these movies, the ‘protective’ Production Code prohibited the dramatization of a simple fact, that the lynching of blacks had been practiced in epidemic proportions ever since the end of the Civil War.

America’s first full-blown dramatic movie about lynching was co-written and directed by an expatriate German, himself fleeing a country where a despotic government was outraging human decency as a matter of public policy. From a screenplay by Norman Krasna, Fritz Lang fashioned a tightly constructed thriller every bit as intense as his movie “M”. That German classic was also a statement about society, the law and vigilantism. Lang’s Fury (1936) is unlike anything ever produced at MGM. A Warners’ social conscience picture on steroids, Fury uses attractive stars to frame its lynching story in the format of a vengeance tale. And nobody had a better handle on vengeance as a story engine than Friz Lang, from Die Nibelungen to The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse.

The story is a straight-up tragedy that turns into a personal vendetta. Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy) talks his two brothers (Frank Albertson & George Walcott) into going in together on a gas station. Joe’s girl Katherine (Sylvia Sidney) is happy because it will allow them to marry. But while driving to her, Joe is arrested in the small town of Strand, and held as a suspect for a kidnapping murder. Several crazy coincidences make him look guilty. In the course of an afternoon, rumors leaked from the office of the Sheriff (Edward Ellis) by his lazy deputy Bugs Meyers (Walter Brennan) stoke an escalating volcano of gossip, that gives a pack of drunks in the local saloon the notion that a rough-justice lynching would be a terrific, patriotic activity for the evening. The mob gathers at the jail house. Word of the vigilante action reaches the state capitol, but the governor doesn’t want to alienate votes by ‘overreacting,’ and the National Guard is told to wait. Meanwhile, Katherine hears about the siege at the jail and arrives just in time to see the mob try to break in. When that doesn’t work, they set the building on fire, with the helpless Joe locked in his cell.

The story doesn’t end there but moves on to the prosecution of the lynching party, where 22 men go on trial for first-degree murder. All 22 defendants work out alibis, as each has plenty of friends willing to say that they weren’t at the scene of the jailhouse fire. But they don’t realize that a newsreel camera crew has captured them all on film, both smashing at the jail and interfering with the fire brigade’s attempt to save Joe’s life. The judge has ruled that the film is admissible as evidence against them.

Spencer Tracy is powerful as the optimistic Joe, who is turned into a Langian figure of vengeance, complete with mildly expressionistic acting poses and lighting to match. The queen of Depression-era suffering, top-billed Sylvia Sidney is wholly heartbreaking as the ‘simple woman’ whose dreams of conventional matrimony and love are dashed by mob violence. Walter Abel (Hold Back the Dawn) shines as the articulate prosecuting attorney, communicating the legal elements of the trial well in Norman Krasna’s slickly written trial scenes. Bruce Cabot (King Kong) always seemed a natural as a crude heel, and he fits well the role of the mob’s ringleader.

Lang’s knack for picking great supporting players is evident in the large cast of bit parts. Walter Brennan nails the yahoo deputy that, when nagged by his wife, stops backing the sheriff. Frank Albertson and George Chandler are standouts in the cast, while Leila Bennet (The Purchase Price) and Esther Dale (Crime without Passion) have key parts as bird-brained gossips, causing as much trouble as do the reckless men.

MGM was perhaps the only studio in the world that could match the resources Lang had back at UfA in the silent era. Given a key cameraman (Joseph Ruttenberg) interested in technical challenges, Lang made his kind of picture within the glamour factory — with ultra-precise compositions and blocking, highly expressive angles and direction that emphasized thematic and visual symmetries and graphic simplicity. The slow buildup establishes a feeling of domestic normalcy, which is torn apart by montage-like sequences that dramatize the dangerous mechanisms of gossip and un-civil behavior. Cackling gossips are compared to chickens, as in Eisenstein’s Strike, while canted camera angles and staccato cutting heightens the sense of building chaos as the mob gathers in the street. The screenplay shows how the louts and layabouts of the town fall prey to their basic instincts — drink, braggadocio, a desire for status — and even has the nerve to show a hired goon strikebreaker ‘from upstate’ goading the mob toward violence. When the jail comes under assault, Lang is elevated the drama to the epic chaos of Metropolis — with a similar female ‘spirit of insurrection’ whirling a torch around her head before tossing it at the jailhouse.

As in his German talkies, Lang bridges scene changes with matching dialogue: characters in one location finish the sentences of characters in another. This highly cinematic narrative device accelerates the pace and clarifies expository statements. Various simultaenous develop into one organic social malignancy: the gossip campaign, the escalation toward lawlessness in the bar-room, the political evasions in the state capital.

Matching dialogue also catapults the film forward in time, into the courtroom. The District Attorney in his office, before the trial: “…these twenty-two citizens of Sage who I can prove are guilty…

Instant cut to courtroom, at a later date, and he continues: “…of murder in the first degree.”

From the silent saga of Kriemheld forward Lang returned repeatedly to the idea of red-hot vengeance motivating a person to fierce deeds. What has been identified as a core Germanic theme that spills over into Lang’s American pictures: Fury, The Return of Frank James, Man Hunt, Hangmen Also Die!, The Big Heat and Rancho Notorious, where it’s expressed in a ballad with lyrics that couldn’t be more specific: “Hate, Murder and Revenge!” Lang complicates the lynching story by arranging for Joe Wilson to exact a revenge ‘from beyond the grave’ as a counter-injustice that smacks of clever plotting and almost brings a more sophisticated thesis into the open. A mob doesn’t have the right to kill, nor does an individual who barely escaped becoming a murder victim. The next step would be that the state doesn’t have the right to kill, either.

Although it had to be on their minds at every turn, the filmmakers could not build a movie around the fact that the vast majority of extralegal victims in the U.S. were black. When the prosecutor mentions a documented tally of over 6,000 lynching victims, the unspoken next sentence is that, for blacks, the standard human condition in our supposedly law-abiding country was murderous injustice. We should be impressed the MGM allowed that dialogue to remain, as they trimmed other socially conscious material. We do see Katherine watching her black neighbors working out in the yard, but part of their song about yearning to be free, was excised. Also cut was a speech by a barber, who says that he learned about the Constitutional right to free speech when he became a citizen. But MGM did keep a brief bit with a black couple in a car, listening to a radio broadcast that condemns lynching.

Not another Savant theory: the telltale evidence of editorial tampering:

Actually this isn’t theory, as I just researched it at the Academy Library. It starts with something editorial that I observed long ago in Fury, and have used this opportunity to investigate. I’ve not read anyone referencing it; the closest I’ve noticed is that various people note that MGM did some reshoots on Fury, which at that studio in 1936 was not an unusual thing to happen.

Lotte Eisner’s coverage of the film indicates that she is aware of more than one version, with slightly different scenes and some deletions, perhaps used overseas.– we know that, for example, the German print of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) contains the dream montages censored in the standard domestic release version. This makes us wonder if an international version of Fury might have a different ending as well. Eisner’s quotes for Joe Wilson’s final courtroom speech don’t match our American cut, but that might be because she was translating German-dubbed dialogue, or more likely, German subtitles. Would Fury even have been distributed in Nazi Germany when new?

It’s always been evident to me that the second half of Joe Wilson’s courtroom speech is a reshoot, from the way it looks, the way it sounds, and the way tone radically changes in mid-scene. By referencing an original script, it is possible to see what was altered, at least in the scripted dialogue. (spoiler) In the finished picture the final scene begins just after the verdict is read, with Joe walking into the courtroom. Like an avenging angel of darkness or a ghost returned from the grave, he addresses the court in a vindictive, accusing tone

The scene as it is in the movie:

“I know that by coming here I save the lives of these 22 people. But that isn’t why I’m here. I don’t care anything about saving them. They’re murderers. I know the law says they’re not because I’m still alive. But that’s not their fault. And the law doesn’t know that a lot of things that were very important to me, silly things maybe, like a belief in justice, and an idea that men were civilized, and a feeling of pride that this country of mine was different from all others, the law doesn’t know that those things were burned to death within me that night. I came here today for my own sake…”

At this point the cutting in the finished film goes haywire, and the dialogue rushes to a conclusion. The rhythm of Joe’s speech is broken up, with some rough dialogue edits far too sloppy to be Fritz Lang’s work [opinion]. Joe also suddenly exhibits an entirely different attitude, much less aggressive and more accepting. The abrupt change in tone is hard not to notice.

“I couldn’t stand it any more. I couldn’t stop thinking about them with every breath and step I took. And I didn’t believe Katherine when she said — Katherine is the young lady who was going to marry me — maybe someday after I’ve paid for what I did, there’ll be a chance to begin again. And then maybe, Katherine and I…”

The film as finished goes to a final shot of Joe and Katherine embracing.

The first giveaway to the bogus nature of this edit is that across a single cutaway, Joe’s entire demeanor changes, from a man intent on exacting vengeance, to a man making a plea for himself, describing his personal feelings of weakness. This disjointed, abrupt change would in itself indicate a reshoot. But there is other evidence as well. Not only has the tone of the speech changed, but the method of filming is different. For this second half of the speech Spencer Tracy is not in the physical courtroom set, but is positioned in front of a rear-projection process screen. It has that typical slightly soft, slightly slimy look of process work, with a hot spot in the middle and a fall-off of brightness in the corners. The relative contrast in the image is different. Joe’s costume and his tie are an excellent match, but his expression is less intent and his face even looks less lean [because of the different lens in the process stage?]. Rather than re-stage the entire courtroom scene for the one close-up, MGM used this cheaper method to have Spencer Tracy read a new speech for the end.

The scene as it is in the original shooting script:

The original Feb 13, 1936 script for Fury is entitled Mob Rule and is credited only to Norman Krasna. It shows what was changed. The final speech is a rewritten scene dated “March 23,” and printed on a different color of paper. The speech is the unchanged through Joe’s line,

“…the law doesn’t know that those things were burned to death within me that night.”

He continues with a new line in the same accusatory tone:

“So it would be silly for me to stand here and say I’ll forgive and forget.”

Here Joe pauses to look at Katherine and his brothers. He continues:

“I came here today for my own sake. I came here because I couldn’t stand being alone. Maybe what I’m saying doesn’t make sense to you, but my thoughts are all jumbled up, and I’ve got to tell them as they come to me. I thought I could have my revenge, and that then I could start to live all over again. I didn’t believe Katherine when she said I couldn’t. Katherine — is the young lady who was going to marry me.”

Another pause.

“I still don’t know whether I was right or wrong. Those people were wrong, they’re wrong now, and they’ll always be wrong. But maybe it’s done them some good. I don’t know. All I know is that the only way I could go on living was to come here today. And all I want is to start again and — and maybe some day Katherine and I –“

Trying to think of what to say, Joe fiddles in his pocket and finds a single peanut.

“I guess that’s about all I can say.”

He pops the peanut in his mouth. In a huge close-up, Katherine starts to move forward:

“Joe …”

She moves closer until her face blots out the screen.

So how is it different, really?

Here’s how I interpret the difference between the endings. The original scripted speech has Joe simply admit that he can’t be an avenging angel. He’s not sure what is right or wrong, but he can’t allow the lynch mob ringleaders to face the death penalty, or he’ll be haunted by them forever, like he was the night before in the surreal street scene. He reverts to the old, practical Joe. The business with the peanut – part of the circumstantial evidence that was arrayed against him in Strand — now provides an ironic character bit for Tracy to play, and is perhaps a wink to the audience that ol’ Joe is going to be all right after all.

What does the revised, shorter ending speech achieve? It takes the edge off the film’s harsh message, softening the character of Joe Wilson. The entire avenging angel theme just evaporates, with less explanation. He now cares about the fate of the convicted men, rather than being indifferent / hostile toward them.

More importantly for the censors, Joe’s words now affirm the moral-legal imperative. Beyond offering a simple admission that he’s unable to let the 22 men die, he is now submissive to the greater rule of law. Accepting guilt, he expresses a need to atone, and assumes that he will be going to jail. There is no ‘flip’ business with the peanut. It is not the old independent and cocky Joe that Katherine recognizes again, but a new man, chastened and contrite. Joe has been brought into conformity with the good citizenship precepts of the Production Code.

The conclusion from the visual evidence and the change in tone of Joe Wilson’s speech, is that this final scene is a partial re-shoot made at a later date to soften the finish of the movie and reassure the audience that Joe understands his wrongdoing and will pay for it… we aren’t allowed any ambiguity on that score. But what will the court charge him with… obstruction of justice? Malicious mischief? Fury’s status as one of Fritz Lang’s very best films is not harmed by the changed ending, but it’s good to know what was originally intended.

Strangely enough, nine years later Lang revisited the ending of Fury, and the efforts of the Production Code Office did not thwart his purpose. In the 1945 Scarlet Street, Edward G. Robinson is guilty of a crime of passion. He tries to confess but another man goes to the Death House in his place. Robbed of his identity, and even of his ability to have his own guilt acknowledged, the Robinson character is visited by phantoms of the people he has killed, just as Joe Wilson is haunted by the men he might allow to be killed by the legal system. And the Production Code let it all pass.

The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Fury (1936) is a repressing of a fine earlier DVD release; I took its release as an opportunity to finally review the film. It looks great, with a vibrant studio polish and strong audio. Sylvia Sidney is radiantly beautiful. Spencer Tracy’s ‘angry revenger’ act is accomplished by acting more or less like a gangster character.

The WAC provides an original trailer, but also Peter Bogdanovich’s expert commentary, which he graces with some audio excerpts from interview recordings he made with Fritz Lang back in 1965, aided by his then-spouse Polly Platt. We hear Lang say some of the familiar quotes reported by other biographers, too. Bogdanovich has a level-headed estimate of Lang’s character, acknowledging the director’s somewhat imperious and cantankerous nature . He certainly appreciates Lang, but he criticizes Fury a little harshly, calling it dated in some respects and claiming that its thesis doesn’t come together. He also says that it didn’t do well, when Lotte Eisner said it did so well that the director’s next film was promoted as. ‘Directed by Fritz “Fury” Lang.’

Bogdanovich doesn’t look far beyond the fact that MGM reportedly hated the movie. The studio didn’t pull out the stops to promote it and certainly wanted nothing to do with Fritz Lang for the next 18 years. Knowing Louis B. Mayer, I can see the Metro production chief taking a strong dislike to the proud German immigrant Lang, and hating the liberal sentiments of the picture he chose to make. Fury has a villain who says he’s a strikebreaker, when MGM routinely make movies picturing unions and union organizers as Trotsky-like clowns or dangerous radicals. Knowing that Mayer hated the film and Lang, the studio yes-men would naturally diss the picture to reviewers and distributors, as Lang reports in his interviews. Bogdanovich just says that, gee, Fury sure isn’t a typical MGM show.

Fury is one of those movies that, if seen front to back with a little bit of attention, nobody ever forgets. It’s a little bit of “M” and Metropolis plunked down in a Hollywood dream-factory movie. I highly recommend it.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Fury (1936) DVD-R rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Trailer, Commentary with Peter Bogdanovich with archived audio excerpts from Fritz Lang
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 29, 2016

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