Fritz Lang’s first American picture is a searing social statement out of message-averse Hollywood. It’s also a cinematic landmark, packed with innovative visual concepts. Sylvia Sidney and Spencer Tracy have great appeal as lovers torn apart by vigilante violence, and Tracy’s very Langian hero pulls off a ‘return from the dead’ to serve as an avenging angel. It’s one of the talkies’ earliest direct attacks on America’s plague of lynching, a liberal assault that even the Production Code couldn’t stop — the show took the ‘social issue drama’ to new heights, even as Fritz Lang didn’t find favor with the Hollywood studio system. Also starring Walter Abel, Bruce Cabot and Walter Brennan. CineSavant presents the evidence of MGM tampering at the conclusion, that changes the film’s message and meaning.
Warner Archive Collection
1936 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 92 min. / Available at Amazon.com / Street Date November 9, 2021 / 21.99
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.
Cinematography 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
What is the status of street demonstrations in America, and what separates it from vigilante violence and outright insurrection? It was always here I guess, but it has sure made the news in the last several years. It used to be that America was so complacent you couldn’t get a crowd together to support anything, but now political factions are everywhere for everything.
Perhaps it was always thus. Historically speaking, Europeans certainly noted our ‘populist mob mentality,’ as if they didn’t have the same problems. But it’s certainly true that lawless vigilantism is something of an American heritage, one seldom visited as entertainment. When socially-conscious producers skipped Western Union and took their messages to Hollywood, some powerful anti-lynching films were produced. Fritz Lang’s Fury wasn’t the first nor the last, but it may be the most cinematic.
Classic 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 its frightening tale of mob rule takes care to emphasize the role of prejudice and political ambition. 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 masterpiece “M”. That German classic was also a statement about vigilantism — it invents an underworld equally outraged by a child-killer. Lang’s 1936 Fury is quite a departure for MGM. Like a Warners’ social conscience picture on steroids, Fury uses attractive stars to frame its lynching story as a tale of personal vengeance. 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. On his way to see 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 one 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. A pack of drunks in the local saloon decide 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 on the radio 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 moves swiftly to the prosecution of the lynching party, where 22 men go on trial for first-degree murder. 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 attacking the jail and interfering with the fire brigade’s attempt to save Joe’s life. The judge rules that the film is admissible as evidence.
Spencer Tracy is powerful as the optimistic Joe. An ordeal by fire turns him into a Langian figure of vengeance complete with mildly expressionistic acting poses and lighting. Top-billed Sylvia Sidney was the queen of Depression-era suffering. She’s 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 well the legal elements in Norman Krasna’s slickly written trial scenes. Bruce Cabot (King Kong) always seemed a natural as a crude heel. He’s a good fit for the role of the mob’s ringleader.
Lang’s knack for picking great faces is evident in the large cast of bit parts. Walter Brennan nails the yahoo deputy that, when nagged by his wife, deserts the well-meaning 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 their reckless husbands.
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 cameraman (Joseph Ruttenberg) eager for technical challenges, Lang made his kind of picture within the glamour factory — with ultra-precise compositions that emphasize graphic simplicity and thematic & visual symmetry. The slow buildup establishes a feeling of domestic normalcy, which is then subverted by sequences that dramatize the dangerous mechanisms of gossip and un-civil behavior. Cackling gossips are equated with chickens as in Eisenstein’s Strike, while canted camera angles and staccato cutting heighten the sense of rising chaos as the mob gathers in the street. The town’s louts and layabouts fall prey to their basic instincts — drink, braggadocio, a desire for status. The screenplay even has the nerve to show a hired goon strikebreaker ‘from upstate’ goading the mob toward violence. When the mob begins its assault the tension rises to the epic scale of Lang’s 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 uses matching dialogue to bridge scene changes: a characters in one location finish sentences begun by characters in another. This highly cinematic narrative device accelerates the pace and clarifies expository statements. Various threads develop into one organic social malignancy: the gossip campaign, the escalation toward lawlessness in the bar-room, the political evasions in the state capital.
The 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 his silent sagas forward Fritz Lang returned repeatedly to the idea of red-hot vengeance motivating a person to fierce deeds. This core Germanic theme spills over into Lang’s American pictures: Fury, The Return of Frank James, Man Hunt, Hangmen Also Die!, The Big Heat. In Rancho Notorious it’s expressed in a ballad with lyrics that couldn’t be more specific: “Hate, Murder and Revenge!”
Lang’s story strategy humanizes the lynching story with a ‘counter-injustice.’ Joe Wilson’s revenge from beyond the grave smacks of clever plotting, but it 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 logical step is 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 their movie around the fact that the vast majority of extralegal victims in the U.S. were black. The prosecutor mentions a documented tally of over 6,000 lynch killings, and 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 that MGM allowed that much pointed dialogue to remain, as they trimmed other socially conscious material. We do see Katherine watching her black neighbors working out in the yard, but MGM excised part of their song about yearning to be free. Also cut (in prints seen by Lotte Eisner?) was a speech by a barber, who says that he learned about the Constitutional right to free speech when he became a citizen. 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:
Note: everything from here on is a Spoiler.
Reviews are mostly opinion, but this argument comes from research 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; reshoots for Fury were mentioned, but that was a common practice in studios of the 1930s.
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) retains 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. Was Fury even 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 radically changes in mid-scene. By referencing an original script it is possible to see what was altered, at least in the scripted dialogue.
The scene as it is in the movie:
(Spoiler) In the finished picture the final scene begins just after the verdict is read, with Joe walking into the courtroom. Like an avenging ghost returned from the grave, he addresses the court in a vindictive, accusing tone.
“I know that by coming here I saved 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…”
This is the point where the alterations begin. Across a cut, the visuals change in character and the dialogue rushes to a conclusion. The rhythm of Joe’s speech changes. His face is different. ↓ He suddenly exhibits a more subdued attitude, much less aggressive and more accepting. The dialogue edits seem too rough to be Fritz Lang’s work [opinion]. The abrupt change in tone is difficult 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 cuts to a final shot of Joe and Katherine embracing.
Joe’s entire demeanor changes across a single cutaway, from a man intent on exacting vengeance to a man pleading 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. The method of filming is different. For this second half of the speech Spencer Tracy is not in the physical courtroom set, but positioned in front of a rear-projection process screen. the shot 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 looks less lean [possibly because of the different lens in the process stage.]. Rather than re-shoot 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.”
“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:
She moves closer until her face blots out the screen.
So how is it different, really?
Here’s how I interpret the different 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 Strand used to condemn him — 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 harsh message, softening the character of Joe Wilson. The avenging angel theme evaporates. Joe 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 a new 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 flippant 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.
From the visual evidence and the change in tone of Joe Wilson’s speech, my conclusion is that this final scene is a partial re-shoot 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 seriously 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. For Scarlet Street the Production Code let it all pass.
The main message of Fury is not changed. Western Union couldn’t make it any clearer: when we say that justice is not perfect, the truth is that anything can happen to anybody, and that the court of public opinion can easily become a monstrous lynch mob.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Fury looks simply astonishing: the remaster plus HD resolution makes Fritz Lang’s show look like an early first film noir. (It’s primarily a social message movie). It’s obvious that Lang called out the lenses for each shot, as the film often reminds us of his “M”, even down to the blocking, as when Bruce Cabot attempts to bolt from the courtroom. It’s like late-period German expressionism with a veneer of MGM polish, abetted by the introduction of a more sensitive, finer-grained film stock. Sylvia Sidney is radiantly beautiful. Spencer Tracy creates his ‘angry revenger’ by acting more or less like a gangster character.
The extras are a straight repeat of what was on the DVD, except that the trailer is now remastered in HD. Peter Bogdanovich amplifies his expert commentary with excerpts from interview recordings he made with Fritz Lang back in 1965, aided by his then-spouse Polly Platt. It’s a much-quoted talk. Bogdanovich has a level-headed estimate of Lang’s character, acknowledging the director’s somewhat imperious and cantankerous nature. But his opinions don’t flatter this drop-dead bona fide classic: Fury is dated, Fury’s thesis doesn’t come together, etc.. I hoped that we’d hear about producer Joseph Mankiewicz’s contribution to the movie, if any — his creative role certainly never gets mentioned anywhere. Bogdanovich says that Fury wasn’t a success and he rarely errs on such points. Yet Lotte Eisner wrote that it did so well that the director’s next film was promoted with the slogan ‘Directed by Fritz “Fury” Lang.’
Bogdanovich reminds us that Fury is in no way a typical MGM show. Other witnesses agree with him that MGM hated the movie and its director. I can see Louis B. Mayer taking a strong disliking to the imperious Lang, and hating the picture’s liberal sentiments. The studio yes-men could have dissed the picture to reviewers and distributors, as Lang claims in his interview bites.
Fury is one of those movies that nobody ever forgets. It’s a little bit of “M” and Metropolis plunked down in a Hollywood dream-factory movie. The idea that newsfilm could be used at evidence in a trial surely hit 1936 audiences like a bolt of lightning — Justice Fueled by Cinema, or Rodney King the Prequel. We have to hand it to those incredible newsreel cinematographers. In the middle of a pitched riot, their perfect locked-down camera shots anticipate and capture every bit of key action in the chaos. Imagine if cell phone cameras had existed in Dallas in 1963 … there’d be enough coverage of the assassination to render a digital 3-D environment.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Trailer (HD), Commentary with Peter Bogdanovich with archived audio excerpts from Fritz Lang.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: November 16, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson