“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” proclaimed Network’s (1976) Howard Beale (Peter Rinch), a quote that inextricably struck the chord with both the fictional crowd of Beale’s world and the post-Vietnam Gerald Ford audiences that flocked to this sensationalist-driven picture. It’s the articulative snippet from Paddy Chayefsky’s piercing script that has remained in the public conscious throughout the subsequent decades, often cited for a relevance that’s more apparent now than before. This appreciation creates a separation in the viewer’s mind by evaluating its own contextual merits while acknowledging that the success of these merits is built around a cynical core that has been brought to the fore in a society that no longer resembles this exaggerated concept. An attitude that can very well be ranked alongside Ace in the Hole (1951), The Caine Mutiny (1954), last month’s highlight, or any other film that examines the morally repugnant social kernel for drama, we treat these pictures as a retrospective for how ahead of their time they were, as if transparency hadn’t already been engrained.
Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936), the Austrian-born director’s first American picture, is as vigorously apt of a title as any for assembling a mirror that has only widened as it’s aged. As usual with Lang, the film centers on a naïve sap being put through a ringer of harsh truths that had been manifesting under the surface until fate made its way. That sap is Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy), a gas station owner who’s counting the days until he’s living with his fiancée, Katherine Grant (Sylvia Sidney), an idyllic woman with a similar narrow-minded view of the world. On route to visit her, he is wrongfully arrested in the sticks for the kidnapping of a child. Immediately clear to Wilson that this circumstantial grasp is a means for an answer, not a solution, he quietly resides in his cell as a town eager for some gossip spreads the misinformed word on this recent arrest until a need for a justice begins to dictate the collective discourse.
Lang’s penchant for exploiting a figure of innocence in order to dissect how deep the cynical bite can be comes off as the primary – or perhaps natural – function in human existence. Wilson, left alone in his cell without the figures in his life that make his heart beat so proudly (Grant, his two rambunctious brothers that need his guidance, a terrier with similar characteristics), rots away in the sight of a humanistic impulse that was once absent, growing rancorous as the figurative light he desperately needs is brought forth as the literal downfall by a crowd that wants nothing more than to shun logic for a result. You don’t necessarily question the proceedings in Lang’s word, but follow the definitively virtuous until it has been wholly distorted while retaining none of the good that once remained. (His arrest is lazily slapped together, but this negligence merely corresponds with the ensuing social retaliation, a bitter irony that convolutes a scenario where the inciting incident is defined solely by a pocket full of peanuts.)
The attempt to reckon with this unfathomable behavior in hindsight is given something of a twist: Wilson, believed to be dead from the riotous flames of the prison, making for an ironclad case against those perpetuating this animalistic incident, is, in fact, among the living. The living may be an exaggeration: his physical and mental state now resembles the hollow core of that countryside town, determined to hide his presence from others in order to – much to the giddiness of Lang – enact a form of justice that can only be achieved from their shallow playing field. The results from Lang’s characters are only accomplished when they realize they’ve been playing a fool’s game. Wilson and Grant, gazing at the emblematic image for their eventual marriage while they bounce off one another’s infectious aura, initially doesn’t feel like a bookend for the narrative, but a glimpse within a dynamic that, if it wasn’t going to be finite on its own, was destined to crumble piece by piece; a foundation that couldn’t possibly exist within a social structure that treats such concepts as a form of amusement. The great strength of this rabbit hole isn’t that these town folks are archetypal cardboard cutouts, but that they’re able to bypass this fabrication in order to succeed with their goals, however morally repugnant the path. It’s relentless and misanthropic as can be, but it wouldn’t feel like a genuine expression of Lang if it wasn’t. The film does try to bring this narrative full circle with a cheerful, abrupt conclusion that is painfully obvious with its disingenuous purpose, confirming to the viewer, even if they weren’t aware prior or afterwards, that MGM wouldn’t accept this candid expose. (Lang indeed opposed the final moments.)
This material that duly uses Wilson to dismantle the falsity and hypocrisy of American values would’ve fallen apart had anyone other than Tracy played the part. With a composure that is as formidable as it is ingenuous, Tracy allows his character to have the proper balance for believability. You accept that this person was able to progress through life with such passiveness, while understanding that the self-assertiveness lurking under every spoken word and facial tick can prevail with immense force once the proper pieces are assembled. His persona in the back half feels innate to both the performer and character. Jimmy Stewart and Clarke Gable, two other MGM contracted stars, are too offset with their very nature to persuade such motives. Stewart wasn’t far enough in his career to convincingly present this impetuous self-destruction, while Gable’s presence would have been too in line with Sydney’s. Even actors that could have potentially been put on loan or thought of purely on a hypothetical basis, such as Warner Bros’ Edward G. Robinson (used to immaculate effect in Lang’s Scarlett Street (1945), but only at the right point – i.e. the climax) or Paramount’s Gary Cooper, lack the idealism that is waiting to collapse for dramatic effect. Tracy exudes the desired purity while physically conveying a presence that could very well have appeared in the town mob.
Fury isn’t disclosing a baleful infrastructure for us to reluctantly accept. Rather, its edges are meant to be seen in order to show how glaring these faults are, and how they can surely be modified in order to prevent such occurrences. Time has proven that humanity is blinded by this need, instead recreating, to startling effect, the very nature we’re supposed to consciously dismiss. Going from A to B takes a degree of introspection and common decency, and it is being neglected because these traits aren’t a necessity. This euphoric man eagerly driving across the landscape of America to marry his wife, only to encounter faces that let emotion swiftly override intellect, is brought to a point of decision alone in his cell: give in to the gravest of instincts, continue to cling to the faulty symbol found within your furry friend, or find a middle-ground that excuses these consequences. One suspects Lang leaned more towards the former, but it’s difficult not to feel inclined towards the least accessed route when we live in an age that thrives on the hostile ideology.