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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

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Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Fritz Lang (Metropolis, M) fled Germany after being asked to head film production for the Nazis. He fled so quickly that he left almost all of his possessions and his wife, Thea Von Harbou, who remained in Germany and joined the Nazis as a screenwriter.

Lang made one film in France, Liliom, before continuing to the U.S. to seek work as a director. After a year of waiting, his first American film, made for MGM studios, was Fury, released this month for the first time on DVD as part of Warner Home Video’s Controversial Classics collection. (Fury also marks the producing debut of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, The Philadelphia Story, Woman of the Year.)

An innocent man faces a lynch mob in Fritz Lang's first American movie
An innocent man faces a lynch mob in Fritz Lang’s first American movie

Starring Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sidney, Fury tells of an innocent man, Joe Wilson, facing an angry lynch mob with a taste for blood. The sheriff (Edward Ellis) and his deputies try to hold off the mob, but there are too many of them. After the fires burn out and tempers cool down, Joe’s brothers (George Walcott and Frank Albertson) set out to get revenge against the mob by having twenty-two men and women who participated in the mob tried for murder.

Lang was well known as a director of crime and suspense movies, so the story of Fury fit his style well. Lang had wanted to make a movie against mob justice, and he helped develop the script from a four-page outline into a full-fledged movie, even though he spoke little English. Bartlett Cormack wrote the screenplay from a story by Norman Krasna, all with Lang’s participation.

In his audio commentary on the DVD, Peter Bogdanovich says that Lang thought the story could have been a more forceful condemnation of lynch mobs if the hero were actually guilty. But there was no way in 1936 Hollywood to make a film with that kind of a protagonist. So Lang lived with the compromise, one of many he found he’d have to make working in America.

In essence, Bogdanovich confesses that Fury is not as strong as it could be. For instance, it ends happily with a kiss, which Lang himself says he hated. Lang, who died in 1976, speaks on the DVD commentary through audio recordings made by Bogdanovich in 1965.

Bogdanovich and Lang also speak of the day-to-day compromises Lang learned he’d have to make. In Germany, he could expect his crew to work through lunch, or to eat in shifts to maximize productivity. But in America, things were different, and some of the cast and crew resented Lang’s expectations. Apparently Spencer Tracy didn’t like Lang, and even Bogdanovich, in an odd moment of bitter candor, says that Lang wronged him, both personally and professionally.

Nevertheless, Bogdanovich, and indeed most film historians, admire Lang’s talent as a director and visionary. And even if Fury is not Lang’s best work, it carries his recognizable stamp. You won’t find it in the dialogue or the acting, both of which were cultural barriers Lang couldn’t quite cross after only a year in America. But Lang’s signature can be seen in many of the film’s strongest visuals: the angry mob scene, and the expressionistic treatment of Tracy’s change from happy-go-lucky to bitter.

As a whole, Fury is neither as impressive nor as important as M or Metropolis. In fact, none of his American movies ever quite reached the same heights as his early German films. So Fury may not be a cinematic “essential.” But it does mark an important milestone in the career of one of the great directors of silent and sound cinema.

And now you can see it in your living room on DVD.

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies