Feb. 13, 2005

Fury (1936)
Grade: 55/100

Director: Fritz Lang.
Stars: Spencer Tracy, Sylvia Sidney, Walter Brennan

What it's about. A law-abiding man (Spencer Tracy), en route to a wedding with his goody-two-shoe fiancee (Sylvia Sidney) is arrested in a small town, suspected as a notorious kidnapper. A mob forms to lynch him, but Tracy is determined to get his revenge.

How others will see it. Most people avoid old black and white movies that try to make them think. Those that stick with the film will find it interesting, but will remain emotionally detached from it. Part of the problem is the stringent production code of the era, which forces Tracy to do eventual good.

How I felt about it. Fury shows its age. The arrival of television changed the nature of lynch mobs, who now decide the innocence or guilt of celebrities (such as O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson) from their armchairs, rather than in the streets. The mindless hatred of a mob seems impossible today in the U.S., but people are the same now as they were a century ago, and the same monsters still lurk within us.

Every cinematic age has its formulas. In 1936, the production code meant that sinners are punished, while good behavior is rewarded. Thus, the sheriff trying to stop the mob isn't permanently injured, and Tracy isn't killed either. the mob ringleaders get what's coming to them, and trouble looms over Tracy until he comes clean. He'll go mad and lose his relations (thus punished) if he doesn't come forward, and in coming forward, he recovers the love of his impossibly determined, loyal, and angelic girlfriend.

Fury provides an important lession in how ordinary folks can lose their humanity and turn into an army of avengers, marching to the drumbeat of whatever evil is leading them. A recent parallel is the enormous U.S. support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq (opposed elsewhere in the world) due to trumped-up evidence of 'weapons of mass destruction.' The support for the invasion steadily dwindled as it gradually dawned on Americans that they were hoodwinked. Well, it still hasn't dawned on some folks yet, but give it time.

The problem with Fury is that its lead characters become caricatures. Tracy the humble fiance is credible, Tracy the revenge-hungry nutcase is not. His sudden transformation to the Tracy of old has much to do with the shrinking final reel of film, and his final speech to the judge, while quite noble, is too well spoken to be anything other than the product of a skilled screenwriter's typewriter.