Consider the premise of Fritz Lang’s god-awful Fury, a Hollywood joke when compared to the masterpieces that Lang made in Germany (Destiny, 1921, both parts of Die Nibelungen, 1924, M, 1931)—perhaps because, like M, this preposterous and fanciful melodrama is grounded in actuality: in California in 1933, the killing by jail-storming vigilantes of two kidnappers who had drowned the son of a wealthy department store owner once they had extracted the ransom they were after. To its everlasting discredit, Fury converts the original crime into sex crimes against a woman—rape and murder—and refuses to examine its socioeconomic basis. The Hollywood version is divided: sober and serious in style, but cheap in (pardon the word) execution. Fury would remain one of Lang’s worst films—possibly the very worst.* Its undigested bits of expressionism embarrass.
Upright garage mechanic Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy, at his sanctimonious worst) innocently drives into town, to see his girl, with a criminal $5-bill in his pocket, obviously from a customer (the ripping up of his vehicle produces no other evidence that he participated in the crime), and the jail holding him is burned down by the town’s mob-citizenry, presumably killing both him and Rainbow, his sweet and equally innocent dog. The dog is indeed killed, but Joe somehow escapes. Now a mob-in-one behind the scenes, he schemes to have 22 of his assailants tried and hanged for his murder. But the reminder of his previously impending marriage to schoolteacher Katherine Grant (Sylvia Sidney, at least borderline human) compels him to appear in open court right before twenty of the twenty-two defendants are about to be sentenced to death.
Those who defend this earnest piece of trash note that ordinary people, including Joe, are shown to be capable of rash judgment and violent action; but a condemnation of democracy, as kissing kin to fascism, is dropped from view. (Lang, who was part-Jewish, had fled Nazi Germany.) Ultimately, Fury isn’t about anything.
The one good performance is given by Edward Ellis, who plays the just, deliberate town’s sheriff. Perhaps Lang scores a peripheral point by showing his inability, despite all his righteousness, to control the mob that the citizens of his town become.
* Lang’s two best American films: You Only Live Once (1937); Rancho Notorious (1952), the last of Lang’s three Westerns.