FURY - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

USA, 1936

Director: Fritz Lang

Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; black and white; running time: 92 minutes, length: 8292 feet. Released June 1936.

Producer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz; screenplay: Fritz Lang and Bartlett Cormack, from the novel Mob Rule by Norman Krasna; photography: Joseph Ruttenberg; editor: Frank Sullivan; art directors: Cedric Gibbons, William A. Horning; music: Franz Waxman.

Cast: Spencer Tracy ( Joe Wheeler ); Sylvia Sidney ( Katherine Grant ); Walter Abel ( District Attorney ); Bruce Cabot ( Kirby Dawson ); Edward Ellis ( Sheriff ); Walter Brennan ( Bugs Meyers ); Frank Albertson ( Charlie ); George Walcott ( Tom ); Arthur Stone ( Durkin ); Morgan Wallace ( Fred Garrett ); George Chandler ( Milton Jackson ); Roger Gray ( The Stranger ); Edwin Maxwell ( Vickery ); Howard Hickman ( Governor ); Jonathan Hale ( The Defence Counsel ).



Lang, Fritz, and Bartlett Cormack, Fury , in Twenty Best Screenplays , edited by John Gassner and Dudley Nichols, New York, 1943.


Courtade, Francis, Fritz Lang , Paris, 1963.

Moullet, Luc, Fritz Lang , Paris, 1963.

Eibel, Alfred, editor, Fritz Lang , Paris, 1964.

Bogdanovich, Peter, Fritz Lang in America , New York, 1967.

Deschner, Donald, The Films of Spencer Tracy , New York, 1968.

Swindell, Larry, Spencer Tracy: A Biography , New York, 1969.

Jensen, Paul, The Cinema of Fritz Lang , New York, 1969.

Johnston, Claire, Fritz Lang , London, 1969.

Tozzi, Romano, Spencer Tracy , New York, 1973.

Grafe, Frieda, Enno Patalas, and Hans Prinzler, Fritz Lang , Munich, 1976.

Eisner, Lotte, Fritz Lang , edited by David Robinson, New York, 1977.

Armour, Robert, Fritz Lang , Boston, 1978.

Ott, Frederick, The Films of Fritz Lang , Secaucus, New Jersey, 1979.

Jenkins, Stephen, editor, Fritz Lang: The Image and the Look , London, 1981.

Giannetti, Louis, Masters of the American Cinema , Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1981.

Kaplan, E. Ann, Fritz Lang: A Guide to References and Resources , Boston, 1981.

Maibohm, Ludwig, Fritz Lang: Seine Filme, sein Leben , Munich, 1981.

Dürrenmatt, Dieter, Fritz Lang: Leben und Werk , Basel, 1982.

Humphries, Reynold, Fritz Lang: Cinéaste américain , Paris, 1982; as Fritz Lang: Genre and Representation in His American Films , Baltimore, 1988.

Davidson, Bill, Spencer Tracy, Tragic Idol , London, 1987.

Humphries, Reynold, Fritz Lang: Genre & Representation in His American Films , Ann Arbor, 1989.

Levin, David J., Richard Wagner, Fritz Lang, and the Nibelungen: The Dramaturgy of Disavowal , Princeton, 1998.

McGilligan, Patrick, Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast , New York, 1999.


New York Times , 6 June 1936.

Variety (New York), 10 June 1936.

Times (London), 24 June 1936.

Kine Weekly (London), 25 June 1936.

Sight and Sound (London), Summer and Autumn 1936.

Spectator (London), 3 July 1936.

Lambert, Gavin, in Sight and Sound (London), Summer and Autumn 1955.

Cohn, Bernard, in Positif (Paris), February 1964.

Springer, John, "Sylvia Sidney," in Films in Review (New York), January 1966.

Thousand Eyes Magazine (New York), January 1977.

Listener (London), 13 August, 1987.

Kurowski, U., "Fritz Lang," in EPD Film (Frankfurt), vol. 7, no. 12, December 1990.

Smedley, N., "Fritz Lang's Trilogy: The Rise and Fall of a European Social Commentator," in Film History (London), vol. 5, no. 1, March 1993.

Greene, Graham, "Deux critiques," in Positif (Paris), no. 441, November 1997.

* * *

Like many of Fritz Lang's post-Hitler films, Fury almost didn't get made; according to Lotte Eisner, the project was a "last chance" effort before Lang's one-year MGM contract lapsed. But as Lang's inaugural Hollywood effort, Fury was certainly worth the wait, and in retrospect can be taken as emblematic of the way Lang would be treated by successive generations of reviewers and critics.

A significant number of Fury 's contemporary reviewers, for example, divided the film into two halves, the first, in the words of Otis Ferguson, "a powerful and documented piece of fiction about a lynching," the second "a desperate attempt to make love, lynching, and the Hays office come out even." In certain respects the "two parts" description is accurate. Part One: En route to meet his fiancée, Katherine Grant (Sylvia Sidney), Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy) is arrested for kidnapping on the basis of circumstantial evidence (peanuts, a five dollar bill). An anxious Katherine arrives on the scene just in time to see a mob of locals setting fire to the jailhouse while Joe watches the crowd through the bars of his second story cell. Part Two: After Joe's "death," his tormentors are put on trial for murder and the only witness who will attest to Joe's presence in the jail is Katherine, who slowly comes to suspect (on the basis of a coat she once mended for Joe and a characteristically misspelled note) that Joe is not dead, a fact confirmed when conscience prompts Joe to halt the trial by "presenting" himself in court.

Add to this picture of Fury 's sharply bifurcated and allegedly illbalanced structure related complaints about the story's overall ideological trajectory (shifting the guilt from the mob to Joe) and the film's ending (specifically the courtroom kiss of Joe and Katherine), however, and it is easy to take Fury as two films, its first M -like half the last of Lang's expressionist/social realist masterpieces, its second half the first instance of Lang's debilitating accommodation to the stylistic demands of the Hollywood system. Indeed, there is a substantial body of Lang criticism which contends that Lang never recovered from the Judas kiss of Hollywood after he bowed to MGM's dictate on the matter of Joe and Katherine's courtroom clinch.

There is considerable Langian irony in the fact that defenders of Lang's Hollywood films often derive the terms of their defense from critics, like Noel Burch, who condemn those movies as "a silence lasting some thirty films." Burch, that is, praises Lang for perfecting the transparency of the "continuity" system early in his career, with Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler , after which, on Burch's reading, Lang proceeded to deconstruct continuity conventions by systematic variations, often in the form of editing and narrative ellipses (as in Spione ) which finally become, with M , an "auto-nomous" textual system, an "(abstract) function, but in symbiosis with the plot which they both support and challenge." Of the many (mostly French) critics who have written about Lang's American films in similar terms, the most important in regards to Fury is Reynold Humphries, whose central claim is that Lang, contra Burch, never stopped experimenting with the technology and epistemology of cinema.

The central figure of this epistemological concern in Fury is the repeated auto-reference in (of) the film to the fact of movie-going which culminates in the use of newsreel footage at the climax of the trial to prove that various defendants, despite their testimony to the contrary, were indeed at the scene of the riot. According to Humphries, the effect of the newsreel sequence, like the effect of Hollywood films generally, is to confirm the truth of the (film) world, just as Hollywood confirms the truth of our world, even though the truth confirmed is, in fact, a "fiction," authored, in this case, by Joe Wilson, the fiction of Joe's death. And the irony here, in Humphries' view, is that the newsreel footage bears not at all on the question of the alleged crime. The result is that Fury , the frames of which exactly correspond at times to those of the newsreel image, thus undercuts its ostensible (fictive) claim to "objective" photographic truth.

We can go Humphries one better in this analysis by noting, as it were, the "production history" of the newsreel footage. It is quite clear that only a single newsreel camera was at work in the film world; we see the four-man camera/sound crew en route to Strand; we see their fixed tripod camera position in a hotel room overlooking the County Jail square; the prosecuting attorney introduces the footage as the work of a single photographer. Moreover, we saw what they were ostensibly recording (though often from positions the newsreel camera couldn't have occupied); the jail fire is lit from within the building, the crowd gathers in a now quiet square to watch the conflagration (here Katherine arrives), a kid announces the arrival of soldiers, and the crowd scatters while two men dynamite the jail. Some of the resulting footage is quickly processed and shown in movie houses; Joe sees it some 20 times, he tells his brothers, before he shows up at his gas station, seemingly convinced, almost on its basis, that he was, in fact, "murdered."

And yet the footage shown in court comes as a complete shock, as if none of the defendants had ever heard of or bothered to see the newsreel. And the shock is justified; what the "newsreel" shows it could not have seen, or have seen that way. We get closeups of Dawson helping to wield the battering ram, though we saw that action and saw no camera crew anywhere near; we see Dawson help construct and Sally Humphrey help ignite a bonfire outside the jail, from camera positions which would have come between the two participants singled out, though both seem amazed when the footage is screened in court; we see Fred Garrett gleefully cutting firehoses with an axe while others wrestle with firemen, yet no fire trucks are evident during the jail-burning sequence, and the square is cleared of bystanders by the time authorities arrive.

All of which can be taken to "reverse" the Reynold Humphries scenario of Fury 's "subject effect"; rather than encouraging us to take a (true) newsreel as confirming a (false) fiction, Lang encourages us to see a (false) newsreel as confirming a (true) fiction, the fiction that, among other things, human beings are capable of grotesque violence, even to their own memories (Mrs. Garrett faints in the courtroom, as if genuinely surprised by her husband's guilt). At least part of the film's desire is to recall to mind a national history of forgetfulness on the matter of racial and social violence. And that desire is finally well served by the epistemological hesitancy which Lang's narrational strategies introduce into our "reading" of Fury . You never know when it might happen to you.

—Leland Poague

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