Sunday, May 29, 2011

 

You can't hurt a dead man


By Edward Copeland
Fritz Lang already was known as one of the world's greatest directors before he came to Hollywood. In fact, when Hitchcock was starting out, Lang's reputation for making masterful suspense films in Germany such as M, Spies and the Mabuse series earned Hitchcock the early label of "the English Fritz Lang." Hitler's rise to power led his propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels to offer Lang the job as head of the Third Reich's film industry. Instead, Lang fled Germany (losing his wife, who divorced him, in the process), first going to France, where he made one film, and then to America where his first effort produced the classic Fury, which premiered 75 years ago today. For his first time working in Hollywood, Fritz Lang made one helluva film.


Though critically well received upon its release, Fury didn't make a big splash or earn the revered status it holds today. Its release in 1936 also coincided with the year its male lead, Spencer Tracy, finally came into his own. Tracy had been kicking around Hollywood for several years, but hadn't achieved star status yet. In Fury, he was second-billed behind Sylvia Sidney, who was a bigger draw at the time. With 1936, not only did Tracy get his great role here (though he hated Lang and refused to ever work with him again), it followed Tracy's second-billed role to another bigger female star, Jean Harlow, in Riffraff, but his status climbed with his next two films that year. Almost exactly a month later, he was third-billed behind Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald, but Tracy's turn as a priest trying to reform a childhood friend turned gambler in San Francisco, the year's top-grossing film, really raised his profile. The part would earn Tracy his first Oscar nomination as best actor. He wrapped up 1936 as the fourth in the quartet of Harlow, William Powell and Myrna Loy in the comedy Libeled Lady. By year's end, Tracy truly had become a well-known quantity on his own, something set in cement when he went on to win the next two best actor Oscars in a row for Boys Town and Captains Courageous. While Tracy delivers fine work in San Francisco, his performance in Fury was the one that deserved that nomination.

Fury, even today, remains a powerful film and, as Peter Bogdanovich points out in the DVD commentary, seems quite unusual coming from MGM, a studio not known for making this sort of hard-boiled movie. Fury had elements of noir, but more accurately belongs in the school of tough social commentary with a lot of the expressionistic touches that Lang brought with him from his German filmmaking days, shots and styles that you wouldn't see in a film by an American director at that time, let alone an MGM release. Fury plays closer to something that might have come from Warner Bros., but truly, though the studio and even Tracy viewed it as nothing more than a "B" picture, Fury would have been unique for that time no matter who released it. On the commentary, Bogdanovich says he thinks it's the least likely film MGM ever made, but I have to differ with him on that point — I still think Tod Browning's Freaks holds that distinction.

The story for Fury, originally titled Mob Rule, was written by Norman Krasna (who earned the film's only Oscar nomination in the category of best motion picture story) while the screenplay was written by Bartlett Cormack and Lang. Joseph L. Mankiewicz served as producer. One of the best parts of the DVD's commentary is that you don't just get Bogdanovich, but get Lang himself, taken from an undated interview he recorded about the film, excerpts of which also are included on the commentary track, though Lang died in 1976 long before anyone had even thought of such a thing as a commentary track (Hell, few had video tapes by then). Lang addresses the subject of how he could have co-written the script when at the time, he barely spoke English. According to the Austrian-born director, he'd spent a lot of time just hanging around with regular, non-show biz Americans, trying to get a feel for how their syntax and really contributed more in the way of scenes while the co-writer MGM gave him, Cormack, turned it into dialogue. One change MGM insisted on, which I think actually was a good one, was they changed the character Tracy plays, Joe Wilson, from being a lawyer as he was in Krasna's story to being a man just trying to make ends meet. MGM's argument was that audiences would relate to Joe more if he were a "man of the people" and I think they were correct.

Fury takes places in 1936, but even when Lang made period pieces he approached them with the same attitude. "Every movie should be sort of a documentary of its time. Only then do you get a sense of its truth," Lang said. Fury starts out as a romance of sorts, but by its end it will have traveled as far from romance as you can imagine and Lang will have shown a lot of that sense of truth that he aimed for in his films. Joe loves Katherine Grant (Sidney) and wants to marry her, but he lacks the money for them to start a life together. As the film opens, Joe and Katherine are bidding each other farewell as Katherine is catching a bus back to her hometown. They stare longingly at a window display of wedding dresses that Joe wishes he could afford. While waiting at the bus station, Joe's coat gets caught, tearing the pocket. Katherine says they have enough time for her to sew it. As she opens her suitcase and retrieves her sewing kit, Joe even playfully fondles her delicates, slightly daring for the time. Joe also isn't as refined as Katherine, as she always has to correct him on words, such as when he gives her a "mementum." Katherine tells him she got him a memento as well and presents him with her mother's wedding ring which was inscribed Frank to Katherine (which also was her mom's name) and Katherine added "to Joe." Due to his large hands, Joe can only wear it on his pinky as they say goodbye.

Joe holds high principles and tries to pass them on to his two younger brothers, Charlie and Tom (Frank Albertson, George Walcott), that he rooms with in Chicago, which isn't easy since Charlie is involved with the rackets and a gangster named Donelli. That night after saying goodbye to Katherine, Joe gets particularly peeved and righteous when Charlie returns home with Tom as drunk as he is. Joe also has taken in a stray dog who followed him home, whom he names Rainbow (played by Terry). Joe and Katherine maintain a relationship via mail until Joe surprises her with the news that he and his the brothers saved enough money to open a garage/gas station. Charlie has given up his shady life and with the three in business together and it doing fairly well, Wilson's earning a steady income now. Joe is even able to purchase a car, which he plans to drive on a trip to see Katherine, now that that wedding day seems like a real possibility to him. That's when the story takes its dark turn and things go terribly wrong.

A cheery Joe hardly needs the car to get to Capitol City to see Katherine (with Rainbow at his side, who he's since learned was girl when she gave him of litter a puppies) — because Joe's practically floating on air and in anticipation of being reunited with his girl. Even though living is a bit easier for Joe now, he still sticks to his frugality, choosing to camp out on the sides of the highway rather than finding a motel. When he's nearly completed his journey, trying to find shortcuts on back roads, a man (Walter Brennan) holds up a badge and stops his car with a shotgun trained on Joe. Wilson cooperates fully, but his answers still strike the deputy as suspicious so he takes Joe to the sheriff for further questioning, even though the confused Wilson still has no idea of what he's being accused. 1936 not only marked the year when Spencer Tracy really made his mark, it also moved Brennan to the front ranks of character actors. He'd been working since the 1920s, almost entirely in uncredited roles, but in addition to Fury, 1936 brought him notable parts in Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, the many times remade Three Godfathers and Howard Hawks' Come and Get It, which would win Brennan the Academy's very first supporting actor Oscar, a prize Brennan would win a total of three times between 1936 and 1940.

Once Joe gets taken to the sheriff's office in Strand, he finally gets an idea of what's going on when Sheriff Hummell (Edward Ellis) asks him the seemingly innocent question of whether he'd like some peanuts. Joe graciously accepts, admitting he's had a weakness since he was a boy. That's when the sheriff shows him a newspaper headline about the ransom delivered to the kidnappers of a young girl from a family named Peabody and how peanut shells were discovered near the abduction scene. (As a former newspaperman, it's amazing to me just to see how wide broadsheets used to be.) Joe insists he's innocent and has people who can prove it. He wants to call Katherine, but when he notices the headline says the kidnappers were three men and a woman, he fears getting her involved and asks for his brothers instead. First, the sheriff wants him to empty his pockets, which he does, and they include peanuts and some cash which Deputy Bugs (Brennan) takes to check against the serial numbers of the money that was delivered to the kidnappers. Somehow, a five dollar bill with a matching serial number found itself in Joe's possession so the sheriff locks him up until the district attorney can question him further. Even poor Rainbow is stuck barking around the jailhouse.

It's at this point when Fury really starts rising toward its greatness on multiple levels and Lang delivers sequence after sequence, shot after shot that would wow first-time viewers today. The town of Strand already had been up in arms over the girl's kidnapping, but the sheriff actually displays a degree of professionalism in keeping Joe under wraps. Granted, he doesn't allow him to call his brothers, but he doesn't let the news leak out either. Would that his deputy had such impulse control. While Bugs hangs out at the barber's shop, one of the customers complain that the sheriff's department isn't doing its job or they'd have caught the kidnappers by now. His pride wounded, Bugs asks the man what he would think if he told him that they have a man in custody right then that they suspect could be involved. It sets up the first of many brilliant sequences by Lang as he films a rumor-filled small-town variation of the telephone game. First, the barber calls his wife to let her know what he just heard. She reaches across the way to knock on the window of a neighbor in the next building to tell her. As the news spreads far and wide, you even get women who will preface their comments with words such as "It was told to me in the strictest of confidence." As the story spreads, it gets embellished along the way. The man was caught with $5,000 — no $10,000 of the ransom money. There's a funny shot that Lang inserts during a run of gossiping women of a bunch of clucking chickens. You also get a sense of the small town's attitudes, foretelling how this could go bad and quickly. When one woman actually points out that the man in custody hasn't been convicted of anything yet, another woman responds with, "My dear young lady, in this country, people don't land in jail unless they are guilty." The gossiping men say that the first thing he asked for was a lawyer, so they can complain about those attorneys "that get these skunks off" and how if people had more guts, they'd settle matter themselves. Not everyone in town responds to the news with anger. The Chamber of Commerce anticipates the revenue and p.r. a trial like that could bring to Strand.

For the most part. that entire sequence plays for comic effect. Within the words of some of the citizens of Strand lie an undercurrent of undemocratic ideas and support for vigilante justice, but for now it's just played for laughs. The audience still has reason to be concerned for Joe regardless of how the town feels — we know that he's an innocent man locked up in a jail and that no one knows he's there, but the case against him is weak, even the sheriff has admitted that, so Lang hasn't tightened the screws on the tension yet, aside from Katherine, sitting alone at a diner where she expected to meet him by now. All it takes is a single ingredient to get the men of Strand riled up — a healthy supply of liquor. As many of the men in town get pie-eyed, including the town's well-known troublemaker Kirby Dawson (Bruce Cabot), they all agree that it's high time the sheriff start providing them answers about this man he's holding. Soon, they find the next best thing when Bugs wanders by and they pull him in and grill him to tell them what he knows. Unfortunately, Bugs tells them the truth: They searched Joe's car from top to bottom but all he had on him was a five dollar bill related to the ransom money. It doesn't make the men very happy because they, like all who have vested beliefs in a lie such as Birthers or Truthers, don't want to hear that their rumors aren't true. It's not that they can't handle the truth, it's that the truth doesn't interest them in the first place, not when compared to the lies they've come to love. Kirby and some of the town's businessmen decide they'll demand answers from the sheriff himself the next day.

When Kirby and the business leaders meet with Sheriff Hubbell the following day, he's honest with them: The case against Joe Wilson is at most weak and circumstantial and he's waiting to let the district attorney question him and sort it out, but for now there's nothing for them to worry about and they all should simmer down. The businessmen accept his word but Kirby won't go that easy, insisting that the sheriff let him see Wilson which Hubbell, of course, won't let him do. With the undertone of a threat in his voice, Kirby tells the sheriff that, "An attack on a girl hits ordinary people where we live and we're gonna see that politics" don't get in the way of justice. The sheriff shoots right back, "And I'm gonna see that a bunch of half-baked rumors don't either." Hubbell then orders Kirby to "hightail it" out of his office or he'll take his entire family off the dole. You can tell the incident does disturb the sheriff though as he tells one of his deputies that he's gonna make up a new list of names to deputize and get out guns and tear gas while he calls the governor to ask him to send the National Guard if he needs them. He talks to the governor (Howard Hickman) who promises the sheriff that the guard will be at the ready should things get out of hand.

It only takes another night at the bar for that to happen — and for the media and politics to get involved as well. As the drunks in the bar start rabble-rousing, creating new fictions such as the idea that maybe Joe gave the sheriff his ransom money in exchange for his freedom, the talk turns more into taking matters into their own hands, something spurred on by an out-of-town visitor just passing through after working to break a union strike in a neighboring town. One Strand citizen actually dares to call for calm, but he's quickly pushed away as Lang, in one great long pan moves along the angry faces populating the bar. He follows that up with an even more interesting shot where the camera takes the point-of-view of the approaching mob as it moves in closer and closer to the sheriff's building where Hubbell and his men stand ready on the steps, armed and warning them not to start trouble. For awhile, it's just a loud, noisy standoff, but the news gets out and soon newsreel cameras arrive, eager to film any melees. The sheriff anxiously awaits for the backup of the National Guard, not realizing that a sleazy power broker of the governor's party called them back when he heard that the governor had authorized them, telling the governor that no town likes to see itself invaded by troops, especially in an election year.


Lang's closeups of the crowd out for blood truly are frightening, managing to be distinct and indistinct at the same time. The standoff gets tenser and tenser as Kirby and the other ringleaders hurl insults at the sheriff who shouts back while Joe moves the cot in his cell to beneath the barred window so he stand on it and look out and personally see the horror gathering, probably not the best idea since it gives the mob another target to focus their hate on, yelling and throwing things at him. Joe pleads to the jailer to give him the keys and let him out — he knows he's not safe. At the diner, Joe Wilson's name finally has hit the airwaves. When Katherine realizes no more buses are leaving, she pleads with the owners to borrow a car so she can get to Joe. When they have none to spare, she literally runs to Strand on foot, arriving as the sheriff, having been struck with a tomato, has retreated inside with his men and barricaded the door. The scene of Katherine working her way through the crowd is quite telling. At the back, the people seem more shocked by what is happening, but as she moves forward, the mood changes. Around the middle she gets to the spectators there just to attend a good show, happily chomping on hot dogs as they watch. When Katherine finally reaches, the front, that's when she finds the ones truly gleeful with bloodlust and can see Joe through his bars. Inside, Joe still pleads for help, but no one's listening except Rainbow who comes and joins him in his cell.

The natural instinct of Katherine, horrified by what she's witnessing, is to call to Joe and try to reach out to him somehow, but with the crowd's mood, that obviously isn't the safest position to take. Inside, Sheriff Hummell, trying to stand his ground with the few deputies who haven't abandoned him, notice that it seems to have become eerily quiet. Soon they realize why. Led by Kirby, a large group of the men have fashioned a makeshift battering ram to force their way inside, in another example of one of those Lang visual touches you wouldn't expect to find in an American film of that time. The door comes down and the sheriff's office and jail is breached. The mob immediately head to the jailer, demanding the keys to Joe's cell.


The jailer denies that the keys are in his possession and the angry hooligans start practically choking the poor man to death trying to get him to cough them up. Then, one of the vigilantes spots the keys past the bars, beyond their reach. They try to use a long piece of wood to reach it to no avail and then Kirby hits upon the idea: They'll smoke him out. The mob gathers all things that will burn that they can and place them near the entrance to the jail cells and set them ablaze. The mob then return outside to joyously watch as Wilson waits to die. Kirby, no longer viewed as the town joke, beams with pride. Lang films the other faces in similar, eerie angles and lighting. Other films have depicted mob violence on film before (William Wellman's The Ox-Bow Incident, Arthur Penn's The Chase to name just two off the top of my head), but I don't know if anyone has combined great film artistry at the same time he's getting his point across about its madness as well as Lang, not only here but in what he told Bogdanovich he thought was the best film he ever made, M. A staunch opponent of capital punishment, Lang felt the case against capital punishment should always be made by using the example of someone who is guilty.


Katherine can't believe her eyes as a terrified Joe screams against the bars of his cell's window while the flames and smoke grow. She finally faints. A voice in the crowd yells that the National Guard is coming and the mob scatters. Before they do, a pair of them have a special cherry to place on the vigilante sundae. They light two sticks of dynamite and toss them at the building. They also spot the unconscious Katherine and, as if they were humanitarians, help carry her out of the way. Lang only lets you hear the explosion, but the camera does look back to cast its gaze upon the flaming wreckage that once was the sheriff's department and the jailhouse before going to a fade out.

When an image returns, we're back in the governor's office, where he's beating himself up for letting the political hack talk him into calling off the Guard. We could have prevented all that, he tells the man. The adviser tries to defend his position, reading congratulatory telegrams. The governor asks what kind of telegrams they will be getting now that the world knows Joe Wilson was innocent, showing him a newspaper headline touting the capture of the Peabody kidnappers. The adviser says that of course, he didn't know he was innocent at the time. "Now, this is on every wire," the governor tells him, showing another headline: INNOCENT MAN LYNCHED. In Chicago, Joe's brothers Charlie and Tom can't believe the gall as they read the headline. "Sure, now he's innocent," Charlie says. As they talk, one of Rainbow's pups peeks its head out from beneath a bed and Tom asks if they still have any milk and takes the dog to the other room to give it a sip as the brothers continue to talk about how they will get revenge on the people of Strand who killed their brother. A familiar voice suddenly speaks up behind them, "That's five-and-ten cent store talk." Tom and Charlie turn with a start to see Joe standing in the doorway, very much alive.

Needless to say, the Wilson brothers are shocked to see their supposedly dead older brother standing before them, but this isn't the Joe Wilson of before. This Joe is dark, hurt and angry as he takes a seat to start telling his brothers what happened.
"Know where I've been all day? In a movie — watching a newsreel of myself getting burned alive. I watched it 10 times. Or 20 maybe. Over and over again — I don't know how many. The place was packed. They like it. They get a big kick out of seeing a man burned to death. A big kick!"


Tracy really makes Joe's transition believable, from the upstanding, self-righteous man we first met to the embittered person we see before us now. He explains that poor little Rainbow did perish in the blaze, but the only way that he made it out was by sliding down a drain pipe, burning his whole left side in the process. Tom asks if he got burned bad, and Joe's answer proves more complicated than a simple yes. "Yeah, but that don't hurt me. Because you can't hurt a dead man and I'm dead. Everybody knows that. The whole country knows it," Joe spits. He tells his brothers that his murderers will pay and shows them something he tore from a law book indicating that lynching equals first-degree murder. Of course, Joe needs Charlie and Tom to pursue this for him, because he wants his killers legally tried and be given a legal death penalty and he can't very well bring that about, being dead and all. He also gives his brother another lecture about what this experience has taught him.
"Remember me preaching to you to be decent and to live right? Live right, ha! I tried it. Tried to like it and people, but they won't let you. Charlie, you were right. Donelli was right. Everybody was right and I was wrong, but I know now."

In Strand, District Attorney Adams (Walter Abel) investigates the case, but finds himself getting nowhere because the entire town is stonewalling him and trying to forget the incident ever happened, only referring to it in whispers, especially since they have their own guilt once they learned of Wilson's innocence. For now though, Adams can't find anyone who will even admit that they saw Wilson in the jail cell window. When Tom and Charlie hear that the D.A. needs an eyewitness, they go to visit Katherine, who basically has slipped into a catatonic state since the incident. When Charlie lights his cigarette, the flame of the match freaks her out and she has a flashback of Joe in the burning jail. It does bring her back enough that she recognizes Charlie and Tom and they explain to her what they need from her if they want to see the people who killed Joe face justice. When the Wilson brothers return to the room where they've been staying in Strand, they aren't very happy to find Joe there, telling their brother what risk he's taking by being there should anyone spot him. Joe doesn't care. He wants to be close if there's a trial. "I want to see them squirm like they made me squirm. I want to see their necks at the end of a rope," Joe tells them. Meanwhile, the same political idiot who talked the governor out of sending the National Guard tries to stop D.A. Adams from pursuing the lynching case, again citing the effect on the party in an election year. Adams tells him he doesn't care about the election — he must follow the oath he took first and enforce the law. The party hack tries to sinisterly remind Adams that he doesn't want to risk taking food out of the mouths of his wife and kids to which Adams responds, "Sure Will, but some of the things people have to had eat lately haven't set well in their stomachs." The discussion of the case turns into another one of Lang's bravura sequences where what starts as what he's telling the hack turns into his opening statement in the courtroom of the trial where the camera pans past the 22 defendants until it sees the radio mic and we still hear the D.A.'s speech, first with people listening to it at a bar, then by businessmen, then by a women in a bathroom somewhere (where we can see a man tying his tie in a reflection and finally to Joe listening in the room where he's hiding before we return to the D.A. in the courtroom.

I'm gonna assume that more people haven't seen Fury than have and therefore, I'm not going to tell you how the rest of the story turns out. You'll have to watch Fury and find out if the D.A. manages to break through Strand's wall of silence prove which citizens were guilty and, even if he does, if the fact that Joe's alive will be revealed making the case moot in the first place. You'll also have to see if Joe remains the bitter man he is and if Katherine ever learns that he never died. However, I do want to toss out a couple of moments that I always find particularly memorable.

First, a really odd one. During a brief break in the trial, the radio announcers remind their listeners that the broadcast is sponsored by "No-Make-a-Me-Fat, the magic dessert." It reminds me of the antacid commercial that Edward G. Robinson's character hears during Lang's The Woman in the Window years later.

I also liked how subtly the groundwork is laid for things early that will prove important later, but that's all I'll say. I don't know if this was factually correct in 1936, but the D.A. says that 6,010 lynchings had occurred in the past 49 years without punishment, though it did make me wonder how many actually were punished. There also are many great quotes, but they would give away things to come if I gave them away with the exception of one that Joe Wilson says at one point, that he really could have said at any point after his escape to anyone and it's so essential, I really must end on it.
"The law doesn't know about 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 my country was different from all others. The law doesn't know that those things were burned to death within me that night."

It's amazing how contemporary Fury feels 75 years after its release and how many angles it was able to cover concisely in a short, 90 minute running time. Fritz Lang maintains his reputation as one of the all-time great directors, but people don't mention Fury nearly enough when listing his best.


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