17 May 2009

VENGEANCE IS MINE

In 1934, the spectacularly gifted Austrian filmmaker Fritz Lang became one of a great many European filmmakers to emigrate to the United States, hoping to avoid a, shall we say, politically sensitive climate growing in Germany at the time. A Catholic with Jewish heritage from his mother's side of the family, Lang wasn't necessarily all that high on the Nazi hit list; according to a long-beloved and possibly apocryphal rumor, he was even offered a position by Joseph Goebbels overseeing the state-run UFA studio, essentially making him the chief cinematic propagandist for the German government.

Of course, Lang still had something to fear: at the same meeting where he was maybe offered that job, he was informed that his new film The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was going to be banned for inciting disorder (its highly critical treatment of a charismatic crime lord was likely seen - correctly - as a metaphor for Hitler and the rise of Nazism), and on top of his previous work, M (a highly critical treatment of mob rule and the presence of wicked murderers amongst nice people, that has often been seen as a metaphor for &c.), the climate for a filmmaker of Lang's inclinations would not long have stayed all that comfortable. And thus it came to be that he fled Germany for France, where he made Liliom in 1934; and from thence to America, where he learned, among other things, that even a spectacularly gifted filmmaker couldn't always get his way in the face of studio executives with an eye unerringly trained to the box office.

When Lang finally signed with MGM and made his first feature in Hollywood, 1936's Fury, the result found exactly the sweet spot where popular success met critical acclaim, without sacrificing an inch of the director's distinct personal vision (okay, just one inch: the sappy final shots of the movie were added at the studio's insistence). A far grimmer movie than the delicious sudsy norm for MGM - well-known as the studio that you went to for opulent literary adaptations and glitzy tales of the rich - Fury was nevertheless enough of a hit to send its leading man, Spencer Tracy, rocketing to the A-list after six years toiling in the trenches, while also unequivocally proclaiming itself the work of the same man who'd directed M. The film is, in no uncertain terms, about the tremendous danger of mob rule, and the horrible things that can happen when everyday citizens decide that getting rid of whatever convenient scapegoat can be plausibly blamed for their problems is of far greater importance than niceties like justice and due process. The film's message (and it is absolutely framed as a message picture) is resonant far beyond the moment of its creation, speaking even to our modern-day political reality, but stepping back to 1936, and remembering the man who directed and co-wrote, it becomes quite clear that this, too, is a not-so-hidden attack on the rise of Fascism throughout the world.

Tracy plays Joe Wilson, a workaday mechanic very much in love with a young woman named Katherine Grant (Sylvia Sidney). When she moves out west for a job and to be near her parents, he stays back in Chicago, idling away the days until he can follow her and get married, and for the first ten minutes, this all feels like a very typical MGM story of young lovers, and the American Dream - typical but for the unusually expressive visuals, maybe, but you can't take the German Expressionist out of the boy, even if you take the boy out of Germany.

Ah, but things change on the day that Joe, driving to meet Katherine, stops in a little town in some unnamed state that has just been rocked by a kidnapping ring. It just so happens that Joe meets the vague description of one of the kidnappers, and he has the pronounced misfortune to have just received a $5 bill in change with a serial number matching one of the marked bills from the ransom, and on the basis of this circumstantial evidence, he is arrested, and the chain of rumors has made it clear within hours to everyone in town that the kidnapper is sitting in the local jail, and the Powers That Be aren't taking immediate steps to punish the living shit out of him. So it's that very night that a full-scale riot like you usually only see in a Universal Frankenstein movie storms the prison, sets it on fire, and apparently burns Joe to death.

Better for them that they'd waited to double-check that last bit. Joe lives, and he is mightily pissed - so much so, he concocts a scheme to have as many of the rioters tried (and executed) for murder on account of taking part in a lynch mob. That they didn't actually lynch him is cold comfort, as I suppose it would be to anyone who'd spent several hours in a tiny cell expecting a rabid mob to tear him apart piece by piece.

There's a very distinct sense in which Fury feels a little bit like a plate of vegetables: remember, boys and girls, it is Very Bad and Quite Un-American to lynch people. Even if they were bad, everyone has the right to equal representation under the law. Tracy even gets an immensely purple monologue at the end to all those effect, saved largely because everyone involved in the film's production is 100% sincere about everything onscreen, and Tracy's noble humanism gland hadn't really started producing yet, so that he's less a disappointed moralist than a mad-as-hell bastard driven to rotten cynicism by the failure of the country he'd loved. Either way, Fury is never as much of a harangue as so many message films throughout history, largely because of a good cast, and because Fritz Lang is, by any yardstick, a cinematic genius. Fury never lets you forget that it's a Lang film, and while it isn't much of a showcase for what might be his most instantly-recognisable visual trope - by which I mean, the rigid geometry of his sets and the camera's position within them - there's no doubting who was responsible for the imagery (Lang was particularly lucky to get a crackerjack cinematographer, one Joseph Ruttenberg, who was a great craftsman who never let his personality outweigh his directors'). There are many shots of characters looking directly into - or rather, through - the camera lens, a technique Lang had been using at least since 1922's Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, and a nice display of sinuous tracking shots, the most characteristic of which (that is, the one time the film really stresses the physical geometry of the location) is a POV shot from the enraged mob marching to the jail, arcing around the steps of the building and rendering the armed men standing to defend it as implacable statues.

When all is said and done, Fury is probably best thought of as a minor entry in Lang's CV - but Lang's career is one of the strongest in cinema history, and "minor Lang" is no kind of insult whatever. It augured well for his subsequent 20-year stint in America (a stretch which produced at least a few masterpieces including The Big Heat, one of the greatest of all films noirs), while also being a pretty fine bit of American filmmaking on its own, international in its concerns but dedicated to a vision of Main Street, USA that wouldn't have seemed out of place in a film that John Ford made at an especially angry time in his life. And it has one of the most remarkable scenes in any '30s crime drama I've ever seen, in which the power of the cinema itself literally saves the day. So, "minor"? Still a pretty great movie.