I’ll give them a chance that they didn’t give me. They will get a legal trial in a legal courtroom. They will have a legal judge and a legal defense. They will get a legal sentence and a legal death.

The 1930s arguably represent the true golden age of Hollywood. Cinema had emerged from its infancy and stood virtually unchallenged as the premier entertainment medium. The decade conjures up a host of cinematic images: the musicals of Busby Berkeley and Astaire & Rogers, the Gothic nightmares of James Whale, the screwball comedies and the sophistication of Lubitsch, the swashbucklers of Curtiz & Flynn, and so on. But there was something else there too, something that began to drift in from Europe, gaining momentum as the decade wore on and the ranks of the refugees swelled. They brought with them a darker sensibility, partly rooted in German expressionism, and partly a result of their experiences on a continent slowly sliding into political and social turmoil. The seeds of what would grow into film noir were being planted during these years and, despite only the vaguest shoots being visible at that stage, would finally come to full fruition in the 40s. There can be little doubt that the films of Fritz Lang were a major influence on the growth of this movement, and his first feature in the US, Fury (1936), points the way towards what was to come. However this is no film noir; instead it’s a powerful piece of social commentary, a pitiless probing of the darker and less savory aspects of human nature and, ultimately, a classic morality tale.

The story concerns an ordinary guy, a guy named Joe. In this case it’s Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy), a man struggling to get along during The Depression. Times may be tough but Joe isn’t without hopes and dreams, mainly centered on his fiancée Katherine (Sylvia Sidney). Joe and Katherine are in love and naturally want to marry, but that takes money. The film opens with their last moments together, strolling along the city sidewalks and musing about their future as they gaze at the unattainable luxuries in the store windows. Joe is sending Katherine west with a view to joining her and settling down once he has made enough money. Time passes, Katherine pines, and Joe and his brothers make enough from their gas station for him to realize his dream. There’s optimism in the air as Joe sets out on the long drive west and Katherine makes plans for his arrival. Yet all this comes to an abrupt end as Joe is flagged down by a slow-witted, shotgun-wielding deputy (Walter Brennan) from a hick town. It’s at this point that the Kafkaesque nightmare that will ultimately draw in all the characters begins to develop. It turns out there’s been a kidnapping and Joe, as a stranger unable to give a satisfactory account of his movements, is pulled in for questioning as a suspect. There’s only the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence but he’s held until the DA an arrive. However, the gossipy mentality of the small town soon takes over, and the Chinese whispers that ensue have a snowball effect that sees the local citizenry gradually transformed into an unreasoning and rampaging mob. First they lay siege to the jail, then storm it, set it ablaze and finally dynamite what remains. All the while Joe, an innocent man, is trapped inside and growing increasingly panicked. With the building reduced to rubble, it looks as though Joe has perished. The effects are immediate on all concerned – Kathrine, who arrived just in time to witness the final moments, suffers an emotional breakdown, Joe’s brothers are angry and devastated, while the townsfolk begin to feel the first pangs of collective guilt. However, there’s a sting in the tail. Joe survived the conflagration but has physical and, more importantly, psychological scars that are deep rooted. Stripped of his former sense of fair play, he and his brothers set in motion a plan to achieve what he sees as poetic justice.


The fury of the title can be interpreted on two levels, that of the baying mob outside the jail and also that of the man they think they have burnt alive. In both cases, Fritz Lang captured the build-up to and subsequent manifestation of this fury perfectly. The gradual spread of tittle-tattle among the townsfolk is treated in an almost comical fashion at first – the shots of chattering ladies intercut with images of cackling hens – before taking on an ever more menacing character. It all culminates in the wonderfully realized assault on the jail by the frenzied mob. Lang uses montage and lighting to great effect here, cutting rapidly between the faces of the citizens, joyously looking on with an almost religious fervor, and the alternately despairing and stricken features of Joe and Katherine. In this way Lang provokes a combination of horror, pity and moral outrage in the viewer. What we have witnessed is a great injustice, a perversion of the ideals of civilized society. It’s natural therefore to empathize with Joe and the gut reaction is to take pleasure in seeing this victim turn persecutor. However, the film is a critique of the veneer of respectability and civilization that we adopt both as individuals and as a society. As such, Lang does not take us down a morally bankrupt route, choosing instead to focus on the opportunity for personal and collective redemption. In the end the film’s message is that conscience is the real victor, punishing the guilty more effectively than any court of law and hauling a fundamentally decent man back from the brink at the eleventh hour. Again, Lang uses visuals as much as words to make his point, showing how Joe has cut himself off from humanity and the mental anguish that such actions must inevitably arouse. He cuts a poignant figure as Lang shows him alone and bitter, haunted by the voices in his mind and the images of the condemned which float in and out of his consciousness.

Beyond this the film also has some salient points to make about of the role of the law and ultimately affirms the notion of its being one of our fundamental social pillars. However, Lang first takes its weaknesses to task. The fragility of the law is demonstrated by the way the corrupt tendencies of politicians is instrumental in allowing the situation to spiral out of control in the first place. It is also implied, in the disgruntled and disparaging way the citizens of the town speak about the machinations and trickery of lawyers, that the faith of the ordinary man in the legal system has been shaken to such an extent that respect for the law itself is threatened. As is so often the case, it takes the dispassionate eye of the outsider, the immigrant Lang, to draw attention to both the flaws and strengths inherent in the system. Indeed, the point is reinforced early on when one of the minor characters, an immigrant barber, corrects a local on his misunderstanding of the terms of the constitution – his knowledge and respect for the document arising from his being obliged to learn its contents.


If one were to make a list of the greatest screen actors of all time, then Spencer Tracy would surely have to figure high up. Personally, I reckon there’s a case to be made for placing him right at the top. He was probably the greatest exponent of naturalism on screen, rarely, if ever, allowing the audience to catch him acting. As a result, Tracy brought an earnest believability to the varied roles he took on over the years. As he aged he attained something of a statesmanlike quality, becoming the very epitome of the best elements of the American character. Still, even as a younger man, he had that air of honesty and plainness about him, tempered somewhat by an underlying sense of implacability. In brief, the lead in Fury was an ideal role for Tracy, drawing on both sides of his character. He dominates the movie from beginning to end and takes the transition from down to earth guy to hate-fueled avenger smoothly in his stride. And it’s that transition that lends the film so much of its power; the progression from humble amiability through bewildered terror, and then cruel vindictiveness. His reappearance in the aftermath of the jail burning, like some kind of malignant resurrection, is a shocking moment. Not only has he become hard and driven, but there’s a different cast to his whole physical appearance – not some prosthetic alteration but a subtle shift in posture and body language.

Despite Tracy’s powerhouse performance, top billing in Fury went to Sylvia Sidney. Of course Sidney was a big star at the time, making movies for Lang, Hitchcock and Wyler before seeing her career take a downturn. While she doesn’t make the same impression as Tracy, her role is vital to the development of the story and it’s her influence that keeps her man from going over the edge. Sidney’s greatest asset was her wonderfully expressive features, especially those huge eyes. Lang made good use of this by employing frequent close-ups of her, notably as she looks on in horror at the actions of the mob and then later when a shattering realization dawns upon her. The supporting cast is full of memorable turns from a range of familiar faces. I think Bruce Cabot, Walter Brennan, Edward Ellis and Walter Abel all deserve particular attention though – they all make significant contributions as the loud-mouthed rabble-rouser, the gormless deputy, the sour but conflicted sheriff and the determined DA respectively.

Fury came out on DVD some years ago via Warner Brothers, and it’s very well presented on disc. There is a bit of age related damage on view, but the film looks remarkably fine for its vintage. Lang’s movies were always visual treats and the lighting and use of shadows and contrast were particularly important features. The Warner Brothers DVD represents this aspect very well indeed and viewing the movie is a pleasure. The extra features consist of the theatrical trailer and a commentary track by Peter Bogdanovich that includes excerpts from an interview with Fritz Lang. Although Fury is now over 75 years old, the points it makes about society, the law and human nature remain relevant today. That type of timeless quality is a large part of what makes it a classic, but it’s not the whole story. Lang’s striking imagery and Tracy’s unaffected performance are major factors here too. This is one of Lang’s major works, a compelling tale that is emotionally absorbing and also engages the intellect. Definitely recommended.

20 thoughts on “Fury

  1. Great review. A powerful film for the middle 30s, with Spencer Tracy so good as a man transformed by hatred and the need for revenge. I haven’t seen FURY for a long time but your excellent review makes me want to see it soon.


    • I hadn’t watched the movie myself for quite a while when I dug it out the other day. Doing so made me remember why I enjoy anything by Lang or anything featuring Tracy again.


  2. Excellent review, Colin – I saw this film a little while ago and it made a powerful impact. Both Tracy and Sidney are superb and ‘Kafkaesque nightmare’ is just right. Interesting to see how easily the mob is roused in this film – in Lang’s ‘M’ the angry mob is pursuing a genuine criminal, but here it is equally vengeful against an innocent man. I remember feeling that Tracy’s reappearance after the fire was rather unlikely in realistic terms but possibly worked better if you think of him as a ghost – but I really need to see the film again.


    • Thanks Judy. Apparently, Lang originally wanted to follow the M template by having Tracy play a man who was ultimately found to be guilty. However, I think the version we have works very well, maybe even better in some ways, as it allows us to witness a basically decent individual almost transformed into a monster by the actions of the mob.


  3. Colin,
    your admiration for this fine film is evident from your enthusiastic and thoughtful review. There appears little doubt that the financial and critical success of “Fury” proved to be beneficial to the careers of both Fritz Lang and Spencer Tracy.

    It is rather unfortunate that, in respect of Tracy, his romantic relationship with Katharine Hepburn seems to have rather overshadowed his great work as an actor.


    • Hi Rod. Yes, I’m very fond of this film, and the work of Lang and Tracy in general.

      I guess Tracy’s relationship with Hepburn does tend to get a lot of publicity, but they did make some cracking movies together too. It’s a pity though, as you say, that this aspect of his life is given prominence over his body of work as a whole.


  4. Great review Colin, well done. It is fascinating to see how Lang adapted the themes already explored in M such as mass hysteria and mob mentality and reworked them for Hollywood, though one can also sense the hand of producer Joe Mankiewicz in terms of its liberal rhetoric. It’s also fascinating, and very Lang, to see how the filmmaking apparatus itself becomes a gimmick during the trial, which also makes it unusual. But the film belongs to Tracy, as you say, right up there with Muni’s performance from I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG in my view (and a good deal more naturalistic and less theatrical too).


    • Thanks Sergio, and yes, I guess the influence of Mankiewicz is discernible in the finished movie.

      Technically and thematically, the film is very much a Lang movie though. I agree the use of the newsreel footage in the court is a nice touch.

      Not being a fan of overcooked theatrics or the later method, I really appreciate Tracy’s naturalistic style.


      • I do think Tracy was almost near the top of his game here and was a truly superb actor – along with the likes of Jean Gabin he really seemed to epitomize a certainly kind of naturalistic masculinity on screen that is still enormously impressive.


        • Tracy was almost unstoppable in the 30s a real giant of an actor. Of course that’s not to disparage his later work, particularly in the 50s, which I really enjoy – maybe even prefer in some respects.


  5. Colin,

    Interesting comparision Sergio has made between Paul Muni and Spencer Tracy. Recently, I managed to catch up with Paul Muni’s performance in Howard Hawks’ “Scarface” (1932), and, although released later in the same year as “Fugitive”, much preferred his performance in this film, rather than his Oscar-nominated role in Mervyn LeRoy’s “Fugitive”.

    A major difference between Muni and Tracy seems to be that, while Muni was noted for the extensive preparation he undertook before commencing a role, Tracy’s acting ability appeared to come naturally to him.


    • Rod, I like Scarface quite a bit, and Muni’s not at all bad in it. Frankly, it’s one of the few Paul Muni films that I own. His acting style was never all that appealing to me.
      And while we’re talking about contrasts here, it’s also interesting to consider how well regarded these actors are today. Tracy continues to draw praise and admiration whereas Muni is almost unknown outside of dedicated film fan circles.


  6. I agree with those who mentioned the “film within a film” sequence belatedly showing just how savage the would-be lynchers became (a shot of the woman with those demented eyes here graced the cover of Bogdanovich’s interview book with Lang). Definitely one of the peaks of the film, and the kind of thing we can expect from Fritz Lang.

    Yes, it’s a terrific film for all the reasons you say and more. It’s much appreciated that you take up for Lang the way you do, Colin (I read all the pieces you’ve done on his movies). I set up my own chronological retrospective of his work when those very early films came out and am just a little ways along now (have now seen everything so am just getting back to it all again though haven’t seen some of these in a long time now). He’s invariably interesting, style and sensibility interlocked in a dispassionate humanism that works so well. “Fury” –which I’ve seen again more recently than some of the others–has always come over as one of the major Langs for me, very forceful and I think maybe it was the better part of valor for Tracy to be innocent and become no better than the mob seeking vengeance. After all, it’s not innocence or guilt that is so important but what people do to themselves when they seek another’s death.

    People always tend to give a lot of play to biography with movie stars, especially if there is a relationship with another as there was here. I don’t think it’s very important in the end and not something I’m very interested in. But I don’t think anything about either Tracy or Hepburn off screen has overshadowed the high regard in which both are held for their acting.


    • Blake, to pick up on a few points here. The freeze frame you mention of the woman, half-crazed and swinging a torch, was one I thought abut using to illustrate this post – it is such a strong and memorable image and one that wouldn’t disgrace a classic era horror movie.

      I have, as I guess you know, a very high regard for Lang’s work, and even his lesser pictures have points of interest. I stumbled upon the director’s films when I was quite young, young enough to be unaware of who he was and his reputation with film fans. That lack of knowledge of his critical standing didn’t make any difference though, and I was immediately taken by his filmmaking style and the kind of images he created, even if the themes didn’t necessarily resonate with me at the time.

      I agree with you that the matter of guilt or innocence is of marginal importance. It may be what drives the characters on but, by the end of the film, the viewer doesn’t especially care about that. What matters most is how revenge, deception and the desire to commit violent acts has affected the characters. The real power comes from showing how easily the characters, and by inference the audience too, can be led down a treacherous and tragic path.


  7. Colin,

    As you have pointed out, Tracy remains perhaps one of the most respected actors of our time. I have no intention of championing the cause of Paul Muni over Spencer Tracy, however I regret the fact that Muni and his contribution to cinema have been so quickly forgotten. All this springs from the fact that, (as I previously mentioned), I recently enjoyed Howard Hawk’s 1932 production of “Scarface”, and especially Muni’s performance.

    Here was an actor who earned the respect of, not only the public, but also his peers as well as the studio at which he made many of his most popular and successful films. Oscar nominated for “best actor” on five occasions and winning one, Muni was the recipient of other awards and numerous nominations for both his film and stage work. Whether one enjoys his “unique” style or not, he certainly made an impression upon his profession and the public of the day.

    There are a number of fine actors who face the same fate as Muni. The excellent Judy Holliday, (“Born Yesterday”) and John Garfield (“Body and Soul”) come readily to mind. It was unfortunate that both of their promising careers were cut short because of their “early” demise. While their individual performances are recorded on various forms of media for prosterity, the problem remains, because of their limited screen appearances, how long will they be remembered other than by those of us who recall or enjoy visiting films from the past ?


    • Rod, there is no question of how great a reputation Muni enjoyed in his heyday. Personally, I’ve seen only a mere handful of his films. However, his style or technique of acting isn’t one that appeals to me – in the same way, the method which would later gain prominence turns me off too. It’s almost like I can see the wheels turning and it damages the film watching experience for me.

      Of the other performers you mentioned, Holliday and Garfield, I think they may enjoy more popularity these days – Garfield certainly. Both had significantly shorter careers and lives than Muni. I think in Garfield’s case the type of films he made may be helpful in ensuring his name remains more familiar.


  8. Great post here Colin; in fact, one of your best. Your passion and love for both Lang and Tracy is evident, and your insight into this film is dead on. The funny thing about “Fury” is that it could only be a Lang film. Other directors at that time would not have been able to capture such a level of darkness within their main character. With anyone else making this picture the story would have fallen apart and it would have been forgotten by now, but because of Lang and his immense talent for these films with troubled characters it has remained a riveting drama even today.


    • Thanks Paul. While there were certainly other directors making socially aware films at the time, I can’t see anyone else but Lang making something as powerful and involving as this either. The themes of justice and retribution, the idea of the innocent being caught up in events beyond their control, of circumstances overtaking the characters are classic Lang. And that’s even before one gets to the distinctive visual style.


  9. Colin

    The first time I caught this film I was floored. It was the last thing I expected from a mid 30’s film. I have seen it 3-4 -more times over the years and it still keeps me glued to the screen. This was also my first run-in with director, Lang. I saw M several months later and again was floored.

    Top flight write–up Colin.

    Gord. .


    • I think my own first reaction, from a late night TV broadcast many years ago, was very similar to yours – it has an intensity that managed to catch me unawares too. And I agree it has that type of power which doesn’t really diminish.


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