Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Fury (1936): Do the Right Thing

Let’s quickly get out of the way three important facts about this movie. One, it’s vividly directed by Fritz Lang, with not a weak scene, in a way that always maximizes tension. Two, Spencer Tracy in the main role is excellent in his anger and bitterness. I can’t remember seeing him in anything better. And three, Sylvia Sydney is also superb as his fiancée who goes through all kinds of trials and tribulations. She’s a very under-rated actress with a wonderful face in which you can read all kinds of emotions. She witnesses a jailhouse fire which is the climax to the first half of the movie, and probably few stars of the 30’s could have better expressed her sense of shock; she remains in a zonked-out state for long after.

I’ll pass over things like cinematography, which is almost never as noticeable in 30’s films as it is in 40’s films, and music and editing. I’ll even pass over the dialogue, because there are no lines here that stand out. I’ll give short shrift to all these elements not because they’re bad but simply because I want to concentrate on the plot of Fury. It’s clearly what makes it a great film. It’s the greatest story Fritz Lang ever told, and it’s also perhaps his greatest film: it’s right up there with Metropolis. (The screenplay was by Lang and Bartlett Cormack, from a Norman Krasna story). I thought it pointed up a major elephant in the room when it comes to much film criticism: sometimes all the other ‘artistic’ elements to a film, which movie critics love to write about, needn’t be analyzed at all because the only thing that really matters are the events depicted in it.

This is one film from the 30’s which is still totally gripping to watch today, because its value is all in the plot, and stories can be eternal in a way acting styles or ideas of wit and comedy rarely are. Because of the robustness of the storyline, you could make a film of Fury in 2012 (with a few tweaks because recording technology has moved on a lot) and it would probably still be excellent. Thankfully there aren’t many lynch mobs in modern-day America but, as my punning title suggests, the film is not only about doing the right thing, it also bears similarities to Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing - a mob goes crazy and burns down a building - and so to think of it in modern terms is not such a stretch.

So it’s hard to say why I think this is such a great film without giving the story away, but I’ll attempt a partial explanation. The basic premise is that Spencer Tracy plays a man falsely accused of a major crime. The miscarriage of justice is on a par with the one in In the Name of the Father and has even worse consequences. While Tracy’s being held in a jail the local people, infuriated by the act they think he’s guilty of, form a lynch mob, overpower the police defending the jailhouse, and when they can’t reach his cell they decide to burn the whole place to the ground. This occurs about half-way through the movie and most of the second half is taken up with the murder trial of 22 people identified as mob ring-leaders.

What else can I say without giving anything important away? It’s one of the best revenge movies ever. It outdoes films like Deathwish and Payback in firing you up with anger. You can’t help but empathise, you understand why someone would go to extraordinary lengths to make these people pay. At the same time it’s far more sophisticated than those films. It explores how revenge can eat away at your soul. One of the pivotal moments in the story will come to different people at different times; it’s the moment when you experience the strange realisation that sometimes feelings that people have every right to should nevertheless be abandoned, because they do nobody any good. Apart from that the film is also brilliant about gossip-mongering and the herd mentality, how the law works, the constitutional ideals of the United States (and how one’s faith in them can be tested or even destroyed), and much else. Damn, this is a fine movie!

For 70 screenshots from the film, click here


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