In 1911, mother and son, Laura and Lawrence Nelson, were accused of and jailed for the murder of a local Oklahoman Sheriff. While they awaited trail, a mob of armed men stormed the jail kidnapping both, then proceeded to beat and hang the pair from a bridge. A few years later in 1915, Leo Frank, then manager of an Atlanta pencil factory, was accused of the murder of his 13-year-old co-worker, Mary Phagan. Frank was sentenced to death, but the charge was later reduced to life imprisonment. Appalled by the sentence, a group of powerful Georgia officials kidnapped Frank from his jail cell then lynched him. Thomas Thurmond and John Holmes received the same treatment when in 1933 the two kidnapped and murdered a local townsman in California in an attempt to obtain ransom from his family. The two were caught and jailed as a media frenzy swept the area. The county jail in which the two were held in was broken into by an angry mob. The duo was taken, then hung from a tree. Pictures captured the event and souvenirs from the crime scene were considered keepsakes.
Over 5,000 lynchings are reported to have taken place in America between 1882 and 1968. Of the thousands, the deaths of Holmes and Thurmond became the inspiration for Fritz Lang’s first American film with MGM. A dual effort between Lang and screenplay writer Bartlett Cormack, Fury unfolds the events of Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy), a man whose affection for salted covered peanuts and seeing his long distance fiancée (Sylvia Sidney) lands him in the unfortunate situation of fitting the description of a kidnapper. As word of the capture travels around town, Joe’s innocence is overshadowed by rumors of his arrogant, cold-hearted confession causing outrage in the small town where he is imprisoned. Determined to exact justice, a group of townspeople bum-rush the county jail in an attempt to kill Joe by burning him alive. His supposed death puts 22 of the townspeople on trial for murder, but as the trial gets underway a barrage of guilt and secrets began to see the light.
Lang’s fluid, sharp direction makes Fury more than a tale of human injustice. Instead, Lang quickly turns the story of a man unjustly punished into a biting social criticism against mob mentality and group-think. The drama of Fury becomes an aggressive statement on the barbaric nature and folly of mankind and the use of lynching as social control. Lang uses scenes that are almost comically exaggerated to drive home the ridiculous nature of mob mentality. In one scene when footage of Joe’s attempted death is shown in court as a means to reveal the identities of those involved, a woman is captured wildly lassoing a cloth engulfed in flames before tossing it into a pile of broken furniture, ultimately igniting the first blaze in the burning. With wild eyes, a menacing smile and a near rodeo like stance, Lang perfectly paints a ludicrous picture of a mob feeding off the savage irrationality of each other.
Fury is rich with intensity in its realism, at times causing my heart to pump anxiously at the thought of being in Joe and Katherine’s unfortunate situation. Yet, Lang still manages to tell a beautiful story of love and redemption complete with gorgeous composition that seems to capture every shade of black and white. Juxtapositions of images cleverly string together critical ideas and statements against the likes of gossip and hearsay; such as one scene when a group of women began to banter about the rumors they’ve heard of the prisoner. The scene dissolves merging the women into a clutch of hens clucking at one another before returning to the actual image of the women.
Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sidney share a unique chemistry throughout Fury that strengthens audience allegiance and empathy for both characters. Cormack and Lang’s script effectively fleshes out the pair’s relationship and devotion to one another as well as their personal backgrounds. Conversations flow easily and sweetly between Joe and Katherine and simplistic moments give insight into their individual personalities which becomes a reoccurring theme like Joe’s mispronunciation of the word “memento.”
Fury is an extraordinarily heartbreaking story that puts a face to the countless victims of mob lynchings throughout the years. Fury paints its disapproval of human savageness through scenes of satire and open criticism. As in one particular scene, quick close-up shots reveal the townspeople as they watch the ill-fated jail burn to the ground in wondrous amazement. One mother lifts her baby above her head so the child can see the glow of flames and one man eats a hot dog as if he’s at a sporting event. All are given a chance of redemption, but they ignore the human life in need. The twists and turns within Fury keeps the story moving at a gripping pace, but Lang’s steady direction and thoughtful imagery makes Fury’s message beyond loud and clear.
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Watch the Fury Trailer