The major Hollywood films about lynching -- this one and The Ox-Bow Incident (William A. Wellman, 1943) -- had white men as the victims, when the unfortunate fact is that black men (and a few women) were statistically by far the more frequent targets of vigilante mobs. Not until Intruder in the Dust (Clarence Brown, 1949), can I think of an American film that confronted the reality of the situation. But I don't think Fritz Lang, making his first American film, was thinking about the United States at all when he made Fury. He had seen rampaging mobs in Germany, which is why he left in 1933. That's why the film reaches its full actuality in its scenes of the mob in full cry. Those scenes alone are almost enough to establish the film as a classic, although much of the rest of Fury feels a bit scattered and aimless. It starts like a conventional romantic drama, with Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy) and Katherine Grant (Sylvia Sidney) window-shopping for furniture for the home they hope to make when they're married. There's some sidetracking into Joe's relationship with his brothers, Charlie (Frank Albertson) and Tom (George Walcott), which although it seems like it will bear fruit -- Charlie has been associating with some shady characters, to which Tom objects -- is pretty much a narrative dead end. And after Katherine leaves for California, where Joe plans to join her when he makes some money, there's an injection of cuteness when Joe adopts a small dog he names Rainbow.* But when Joe finally gets to California his reunion with Katherine is interrupted by the law, who arrest him on the basis of circumstantial evidence as a suspect in a kidnapping. Gossips immediately take up the story and a mob led by a layabout named Kirby Dawson (Bruce Cabot) storms the jail and burns it down with Joe (and Rainbow) inside. Joe escapes (Rainbow doesn't) and goes into hiding, where he plots revenge. Eventually, when a trial leads to conviction of 22 members of the mob and their sentencing to death, Joe is presented with a moral dilemma: to reveal that he's alive, thereby saving the mob members from hanging, or to stay hidden and get his revenge. This being Hollywood, the decision is pretty much a foregone conclusion. Lang's direction is not so sure-handed as it was in his German films, but it keeps Fury watchable even when you spot the holes and compromises in the screenplay he co-wrote with Bartlett Cormack based on a story by Norman Krasna. Tracy is fine, though the character seems to split into two almost discrete roles: the affable Joe of the first half of the film and the obsessive revenge-seeker of the latter part.
*An oddly prescient name: Rainbow is played by Terry, who also played Toto in The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939).