Fritz Lang’s first entry of his Hollywood years, Fury, had a tough act to follow: his own German work. His trio of Metropolis (1927), M (1931), and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) could be the greatest trio produced by one director over a six-year span that I’ve seen, and here, after leaving Germany under disputed circumstances, he was forced to suddenly direct entirely in English and for American audiences. It’s all the more impressive, then, that Fury, if not quite at the jaw-dropping level of the aforementioned masterpieces, is an excellent film in its own right. It’s the story of Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy), a gentle giant of a man who opens a gas station in order to make as much money as quickly as possible. The goal—to comfortably provide for his fiancée Katherine (Sylvia Sidney), who’s taken a job in another city. When the day finally arrives, one year after we first see the two lovebirds, Wilson cheerfully departs on his way to meet Katherine…and finds himself tossed in jail for a kidnapping he’s fully innocent of. The townspeople, though, are in no mood to wait for actual evidence: they overpower the jail and torch & firebomb the prison walls, seemingly killing Joe. Little do the townspeople know, however, that the TNT blew the prison doors off but spared Joe, who manages to escape down a water pipe. Fury‘s second half consists of a hellbent-on-revenge Joe, along with his brothers Charlie (Frank Alberston) and Tom (George Walcott), manipulating the legal system that failed to protect him into sending the 22 men and women responsible for his “death” to the gallows. Meanwhile, Katherine twists in the wind, suspecting that Joe may still be alive, but unwilling to pass on testifying (she made it to the scene of the lynching in time to see Joe’s face pressed to the window bars in horror) in case he is dead, in which case her testimony is clearly the right thing to do.
The setup may sound reminiscent of M, and it that’s definitely the Lang film Fury resembles most: people taking the law into their own hands when they feel the justice system has failed them, playing God, and a major indictment on the system in question’s flaws—for instance, Joe’s primary logic, which certainly has merit, for not coming forward is that it “really doesn’t matter if he’s alive: it was murder all the same. They don’t know they didn’t murder me.” Lang does an outstanding job of establishing Joe’s character early, making his transformation later more drastic and horrifying (in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he served as an inspiration for the Two-Face character in the “Batman” series, where a noble man sees the law, which he’s always lived by, completely fail to protect him and his family, and turns into a schizophrenic monster). Prior to his arrest and subsequent near-death experience, Joe emits nothing but kindness & warmth. He repeatedly whispers sweet nothings to Katherine on their way to the train station, and tries to prevent her from wasting time sewing a rip in his jacket in the terminal. When he returns to his apartment after Katherine’s departed, he sees a lost, scruffy little dog wagging its tail in the rain, and gently plays with it, takes it home, names it “Rainbow” and keeps it. He wants nothing more than to live a normal, blissful life with his soon-to-be wife. But he becomes a different person after the prison attack and Rainbow, who is sadly killed in the bombing, serves as a metaphor for what Joe’s all about. Before Rainbow’s death, it’s family and love. After, it’s vengeance, and what Joe perceives as justice.
Katherine, who’s tortured by what she saw that night, serves as a counterbalance to Joe: despite her loathing for the townspeople who committed the heinous acts, she wants her old Joe back, rather than seeing them get what they deserve. The final 45 minutes, which play out mostly in a courtroom, raise many interesting questions about the judicial system, what’s really “right” or “fair,” and what constitutes crossing a line. Lang’s seamless transition to pure noir isn’t exactly a stretch, given that much of M and Mabuse were filmed in the shadows, but it’s still highly impressive that Fury is such a success. The pacing also deserves mention, as Fury doesn’t drag for a second, and the acting is excellent across the board, particularly Tracy and Walter Abel as the truth-seeking District Attorney Adams. Fury may not possess the sheer punch of Lang’s German masterpieces, but it’s gripping, exciting, & strongly constructed, and warrants mention when discussing superb genre entries. Note: for fans of Fury, I suggest seeking out You Only Live Once (1937) and The Big Heat (1953), both excellent Lang Hollywood efforts.