Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 5, 2021)
Spencer Tracy received his first of nine Oscar nominations for 1936’s San Francisco. Tracy made three other movies that year as well, with Fury as the second of the four releases.
Joe Wilson (Tracy) gets accused of a crime he didn’t commit. This sends him to jail pending a formal investigation.
As Joe sits in the hoosegow, locals spread rumors about him and eventually attempt to act as a lynch mob. After this vigilante gang burns down the jail, Joe escapes and plans revenge on those who led him to such a terrible place.
Five years earlier, Fritz Lang directed 1931’s M. While nominally a tale about a serial killer, the film devoted more of its energy to social themes related to the decline of public trust and basic civility.
Those topics clearly remained on Lang’s mind in 1936. On the surface, one assumes Fury will offer a Hitchcockian tale of a wrongly accused innocent man, but as with M, Lang takes the film in a different direction.
Much of that stems from the depiction of Joe, as he takes a dark turn along the way. Rather than simply wanting to clear his good name, he actively desires the deaths of those who wronged him.
This leads down some unexpected paths, and the movie comes with an unusual narrative structure. While the first act establishes Joe and then depicts the riot, the second act largely devotes itself to the trial, with the final segment a view of the aftermath and how Joe reconciles his fate.
As noted, Lang maintained a fascination with the “mob mentality” in the 1930s, a fact that seems unsurprising given that he lived through the rise of the Nazis in Germany. Both M and Fury display the brainless passion that erupts in these kind of large groups.
M came with a clearer message, though, whereas Lang somewhat loses his bearings with Fury. That occurs mainly because the director seems to want to “both sides” the situation.
While Lang paints the vindictive mob as a crazed, dangerous group, he then goes oddly out of his way to forgive them later. The movie plays off a technicality: Joe wants the insurrectionists to die because they tried to kill him, but others feel that because Joe survived, they shouldn’t be punished too severely.
Sure – attempted murder doesn’t get the same judgment as successful murder. The rioters don’t deserve the death sentence for their actions.
However, Lang does little too sympathize with Joe, and the movie eventually makes him seem more villainous than those who wanted to kill him! Fury tells us “a mob doesn’t think - a mob doesn’t have time to think”, and this feels like an odd choice to semi-excuse their vile actions.
Though Lang depicts the horrors of the mob when they actively try to kill Joe, he seems strangely compassionate toward them later. While I get the “eye for an eye leaves everyone blind” condemnation of Joe’s quest for vengeance, the tonal shift to let the rioters seem nearly sympathetic actively damages the film.
Which seems like a shame, as the movie starts well. All the material through the mob assault works nicely, and we get a lot of drama and passion.
However, Fury loses a lot of steam when it goes to the trial. I enjoy courtroom dramas, but Lang doesn’t pull off these scenes especially well, and the movie starts to feel like a civics lecture too much of the time.
Lang condemns violent mobs in this second act, which makes the sympathetic shift in the third act all the more perplexing. Maybe others can reconcile the content of the first two-thirds with the material in the last portion, but I can’t.
This leaves Fury as an intermittently compelling drama but not a great one. It just seems oddly muddled and inconsistent.