Director of Photography:
Running time: 95 minutes
The first English-language film of the acclaimed German director of M, Fritz Lang, has an electrifying idea that doesn’t just provide us with a courtroom drama, but an indictment of mob rule and of the primative climate of revenge that many in the American South clung to at the time the film was made. This could have been a sweeping, powerful production if only Lang had been able to gauge how poor the acting of many in the cast was, and if the screenplay had relied a bit more on logic than emotion.
The story, which shows striking similarities to the case of the Scottsboro boys, is about the mindless violence that can result when emotions get the better of people’s minds and the principle of “innocent until proven guilt” goes out the window in the name of expeditious revenge. During the Great Depression, a very upstanding young man named Joe is working hard to earn enough money to marry his sweetheart and settle down.
Joe, played by Spencer Tracy, has even convinced his two brothers, equally desperate in the terrible economic climate, to give up their involvement in the underground business of racketeering, and everything seems to be going swell. That is, until he is pulled over by a policeman on the day he is supposed to meet up with his dear Katherine (Sylvia Sidney) again. He has a single banknote with him, whose serial number matches one given to a kidnapper as ransom. The kidnapper is still on the loose, and because the police is anxious and the public is breathing down their necks, Joe is put behind bars as a precautionary measure.
However, this precaution quickly gets the town talking, spurred on by those who have an axe to grind with the authorities, and in a dazzling sequence, we see how gossip spreads like wild fire, the stories becoming more and more embellished and the townsfolk whipping themselves into a frenzy. It doesn’t take long before a crowd gathers outside the police station demanding the delivery of the body so they can lynch the as yet uncharged man whose innocence is indisputable.
Fritz Lang, whose M already had traces of this kind of mob rule and the devastating consequences it can have on someone who is innocent, is clearly passionate about his defence of the innocents, and with the meteoric rise of Hitler’s National Socialists in Germany, he had good reason to point out the dangers this kind of mind set could lead to.
Besides the abovementioned sequence of chattering people in the small town, the one more animated about the kidnapper having been captured than the previous, which ends with a hilarious shot of hens in a pen to signify the gossipmongers, there are many other memorable moments. During the scene with the crowd outside the police station, there is a quick succession of close-ups on the people’s starkly lit faces, giving an air of expressionism to the realism.
And at two points, Joe and Katherine individually break the fourth wall, although the reason for this is unclear. Joe, having survived a life-threatening fire, wishes to take revenge on the mob by pretending to have perished in the flames, and he delivers a rousing speech to the camera: “I’ll give them a chance that they didn’t give me. They will get a legal trial in a legal courtroom. They will have a legal judge and a legal defense. They will get a legal sentence and a legal death.”
In another scene with the two brothers, Katherine looks at us and calmly exclaims, “I saw him, behind those flames, in that burning jail, his face …” before grabbing her head and dissolving in tears.
But the court case itself seems to be more wishful thinking than sound legal argumentation, as there is no corpse that would justify finding the horde guilty of murder, no matter how much we or Joe would like that to be the case. Even in rural America, the doctrine of “corpus delicti” applies in murder cases, and it is plain ridiculous to assume Joe’s case is strong when no effort is made to produce his corpse.
However, the film’s main point of interest to those who watch films for reasons beyond pure entertainment is its use of the medium to emphasise its ability to convey truth. Of course, the plot bears resemblance to other cases of lynching or attempted lynching of innocent men in the United States, but on a more tangible level, it uses newsreel footage to allegedly prove the identity of those who participated in the events. Such footage is presented as evidence in court, and lays to rest the claims by the defendants and their witnesses that they had nothing to do with the calamity at the police station. It is a shame, however, that the footage we are shown is so patently fake, as the camera seems to have been purposefully installed in certain positions right in front of the worst culprits at the very moment they decided to do something illicit. The sequence is utterly ridiculous and almost completely undermines the point Lang is trying to make.
By the time the final scenes roll along, Lang makes his most scathing indictment of the justice system that permitted lynchings, to some extent, until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, and even allowed the spectacle of public executions until shortly after the film’s release (the release date was May 29, 1936, and the last public execution, of Rainey Bethea, took place Aug. 14 of the same year). A lawyer observes that on average a lynching takes place in the United States every three days. All of this while the people in the small town talk about the Sunday services they routinely attend.
Fury has a powerful message and delivers it forcefully, even though the elocution of many of the actors (Joe’s brothers, in particular, and also the district attorney) makes them sound like they are onstage and we are sitting in the front row of a theatre. The screenplay doesn’t do Lang many favours, but his use of multiple incidents scattered throughout the film that all fit together in the end makes us feel confident in the storyteller, and it pays off in the end.