© 2013 William Ahearn
In Berlin, Fritz Lang was a cinema god who could get a film produced by making a phone call. In Los Angeles, he was – to most in the Hollywood community – just another émigré and Lang spent his time writing treatments, learning English and – according to his personal mythology – visiting Native American reservations.
Lang began writing treatments on the ship that brought him to the United States and would continue until his career ended. “Hell Afloat” was written in 1934 by Lang and Oliver HP Garrett and rejected by David O Selznick as was “The Man Behind You,” a Jekyll and Hyde-influenced drama that Lang wrote in 1935. The MGM publicity mill attached Lang’s name to several films – “The Journey,” “Passport to Hell,” and “Tell No Tales” – although Lang ended up directing none of them.
“Fury” began as a treatment titled “Mob Rule” and it didn’t begin with Lang, it began with a lunch between Joseph L Mankiewicz and Norman Krasna where Krasna related the story from a newspaper about a kidnapping and murder where the suspects were lynched. He suggested it would make a good movie and not only did Mankiewicz agree, he also wanted to direct it. Kransa would get paid for the idea and would be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story even though he never wrote a word of the treatment or script.
Mankiewicz wrote the treatment and presented it to Louis B Mayer as a production that Mankiewicz wanted to direct. Mayer turned him down as director and okayed the treatment for Mankiewicz to produce – according to Patrick McGilligan’s book, Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast – and Mankiewicz – who already had Spencer Tracey attached to the project – hired Fritz Lang to direct.
The co-writing of the script that would become “Fury” began the Americanization of Fritz Lang. First with Leonard Paskins and then, more successfully, with Bartlett Cormack, Lang learned the ins and outs of Hollywood and its values – or at least the values that would appear on screen. Lotte Eisner in Fritz Lang and McGilligan in his book relate the story – and Lang told it to Peter Bogdanovich in Fritz Lang In America – of how when Lang was working with Paskins, the main character was a lawyer and that was changed with Cormack when Mankiewicz pointed out that Hollywood in these kinds of films usually centered it around a “John Doe” type and so the lawyer became a “regular guy.” Downplayed from the earlier version is the criminal links of one of the brothers and various other changes. Lang – or so the story goes – was responsible for, among other additions, making the main character more sympathetic in the beginning and expanding the fiancé’s role to add an element of a “woman’s movie” to “Fury.”
Lang insisted – against the advice of legal advisors – to having newsreel footage introduced in the courtroom scene as evidence. It is commonplace now and unheard of then and it elevated the usual jurisprudence rigamarole to a new and far more dramatic place.
Years later, Lang would offer his regrets that he didn’t make the film about a black man accused of raping a white woman and that story is absolutely false since Tracey had the part before Lang became involved in the project and MGM wouldn’t even consider such a plot for a moment in 1935. The racial aspects of Hollywood lynching films such as “They Won’t Forget” and “Try And Get Me” remain a sore point with these films as all of the examples are of white people at the hands of mobs because Hollywood studios refused to face the racial – or antisemitic – aspects of the lynchings so they didn’t antagonize the segregated theatres and the segregation mentality of southern US states. That is, at least, the official story since racism and anti-Semitism was rampant in the north and west as well.
The plot of “Fury” – at its simplest – goes like this:
Joe Wilson – after being separated from his fiancée for a year – is on his way to reunite with her when he is arrested for suspicion of kidnapping. The evidence is flimsy although enough to warrant Joe’s being detained. Gossip mongers soon spread stories and each story grows in false details and soon a mob gathers at the jail. The sheriff won’t give up his charge and the mob sets fire to the jailhouse and then dynamites it. Joe is believed dead and his revenge hinges on the members of the mob charged with murder being convicted and hanged.
Lang exhibited a style of direction that he was comfortable with and that was resented in Hollywood. With the possible exception of Sylvia Sidney, the entire cast and crew wanted Lang fired or – according to some accounts – the victim of a debilitating “accident” that would force his removal. Tracey and Lang had numerous confrontations and while Lang may have been a god in Berlin, he was just a pain in the ass with a monocle in Hollywood. Lang’s behavior can only be described as manipulative, abusive, insensitive, and in one case, foolhardy. On the sets of his German films, Lang would always set off the bombs or light the fires or fire the pistol. In the riot scene in “Fury,” Lang wanted to throw the first object and throw he did, right into the head of actor Bruce Cabot. Lang’s insistence on what was seen as pointless perfectionism got him banned from the editing department and that results in an interesting question.
One of Lang’s complaints is that MGM edited out several scenes. One of those scenes follows the barbershop trail of gossip that goes from the barber to his wife to her friends and Lang capped the sequence, according to what he told Peter Bogdanovich in Fritz Lang In America, with “some geese” – actually, they’re chickens. Lang did admit that he went over the top with that one and also suggested he may have cut it. Another involves a scene with Joe’s fiancé at home and through the window a black woman is hanging laundry and singing a spiritual. The third involves a group of black people standing around a car and listening to the trial on the radio. Lotte Eisner as well as Patrick McGilligan in their respective books on Lang report the scenes as having been cut. On the version of the film that I have, all three scenes are present.
There were – according to sources – other cuts to the film and those involved anachronisms that Lang employed in “Fury” and it wouldn’t be the last time that anachronisms became an issue between Lang and producers. Although Lang considered Joseph L. Mankiewicz an enemy, it was Mankiewicz – according to McGilligan – who was Lang’s biggest defender, kept Lang from being fired and allowed Lang free reign in the editing of the film until Lang was finally banned. According to Mankiewicz, Lang chose to present the image of Joe’s guilt literally and showed “ghosts shooting up from behind trees and chasing [Spencer] Tracy, twenty years [sic] after “Caligari.’” The audience – according to Mankiewicz – “didn’t stop laughing during the last two reels.” Eddie Mannix – an MGM vice president and “fixer” – demanded that Mankiewicz re-edit the film and cut all “the Disney nonsense.”
“Fury” bombed, but the critics loved it. (It’s difficult to get box office figures and while considered a failure, it certainly helped the careers of Tracey, Sidney and Lang as well.) In The New York Times, Frank Nugent wrote “Cinematically it is almost flawless. . . . Nor can we fail to salute its cast for their sincere and utterly convincing performances.” Graham Greene (who will appear again in these essays) noted in The Spectator, “Any other film this year is likely to be dwarfed by Herr Lang’s achievement.” In The Hollywood Reporter, WR Wilkerson wrote: “Fritz Lang, handling his first MGM picture, contributed one of the best bits of direction this reviewer has ever seen.”
“Fury” remains – despite all the imposed Hollywood shortcomings – an excellent film full of the drive – and humor – that Lang had been known for. The pace of this film is indicative of Lang learning the Hollywood style and in many ways – as Graham Greene pointed out – it outshines many of the contemporary films made in that time frame. Using the notion of newsreel photography, Lang is creating a film of the moment that incorporates a style and direction that remain riveting.
Where appreciation of this film has become stilted is in recent criticism that attempts to “explain” Lang’s Hollywood films by linking themes and styles to his German films. In a way, I find this insulting to Lang who is far more imaginative and far more creative – at this point – than a hack recycling styles and stories. The critics dwell on superficial similarities while missing what is happening in the film because most of the similarities have – when seriously considered – nothing to do with one another.
Two examples follow and both create erroneous “insight” into “Fury.”
In Fritz Lang, Lotte Eisner writes, “Like Kriemhild [Joe Wilson’s] only thought is of revenge. He is just.” Comparisons to Kriemhild show up in film criticism about Lang often – Andrew Sarris, among others, will also reference it – and the comparison is always ridiculous and misleading. Kriemhild’s husband is murdered and Kriemhild launches a revenge so twisted – she even bears a son to Atilla the Hun so she can borrow his army – that hundreds die and castles are burned. In Lang’s pre-Hollywood films, characters do not relent and – with the possible exception of the father figure in “Metropolis” – they do not second-guess themselves. These characters set a course and then follow it. Kriemhild’s revenge is completely nihilistic and lacks any redemptive aspects whatsoever. In 1936, “Die Nibelungen” wouldn’t make it past the Hollywood studio execs and certainly not past the Hays Office.
Joe Wilson in “Fury” does relent as an apparent result of his conscience and is redeemed by the love of Katherine Grant in a typical Hollywood ending. Although Lang disputes that conclusion: “I’ve often been asked,” Lang told Bogdanovich, “if Tracy gives himself up because of social consciousness or something like that. I don’t think so. I think this man gives himself up because he can’t go on living an eternal lie – he couldn’t go through life with it. It’s too easy an explanation to say social consciousness makes one do something. One acts because of emotions, personal emotions.”
Whether “social consciousness” or “personal emotions” cause Wilson to relent is irrelevant. The comparison to Kriemhild is one of opposites. To think that Lang could make comparable films in Hollywood to his German films seems to be a hurdle too high for many critics. The studios – and the Hays Office – wouldn’t tolerate a Dr Mabuse character or an “M” scenario for a moment. In Germany, Lang earned his godlike status with a series of films that stunned critics and audiences. In Hollywood, where many had not even heard of him, he was a director for hire going from assignment to assignment and, in some ways, still believing in his god-like status.
In Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast, author Patrick McGilligan describes how Joseph Ruttenberg became Lang’s cameraman for “Fury.” The selection of cameraman was one of the few choices – other than working on the script – that Lang was given. According to McGilligan:
“Joseph Ruttenberg, a Russian-born veteran whose career dated back to silent features in New York during the post-World War One era, was familiar with the Expressionism of German films, and he wanted the job. Skilled at evoking depth, dimension, and atmosphere, Ruttenberg deliberately established a ‘cockeyed setup’ with the camera positioned at a severe low angle. [Lang] went for the bait. ‘I vant that cameraman vot me,’ Ruttenberg remembered Lang commanding.”
That seems to suggest that Ruttenberg’s knowledge of “German expression” and his ability to produce “cock-eyed setups” appealed in some throwback way to Lang’s earlier work and that is why Lang hired him. That is nonsense and Ruttenberg’s description of his relationship with Lang is quoted in a far fuller version in Frederick Ott’s The Films of Fritz Lang and that quote tells a far different tale. Ruttenberg said:
“Because I had seen ‘Metropolis’ and other German films, I felt I knew what Lang wanted. In my tests for ‘Fury’ I gave him some interesting angles, which he liked. During the preparation for ‘Fury’ Lang told me ‘I don’t want fancy photography – nothing artistic – I want newsreel photography.’ Throughout, he strove to achieve a documentary realism in keeping with the subject.”
Joseph Horowitz writing in Artists in Exile noted, “Though Lang’s ‘documentary’ aesthetic – a residue of Neue Sachlichkeit [New Objectivity] doubled by the subtraction of [Thea] von Harbou – eased his transition to American cinema, his German films remain more of a piece: better cast, better acted, better scripted; more original; more integral to their time and place.”
Lang reiterated the documentary concept to Bogdanovich: “When I make a picture of today – especially if it’s a crime picture – I always tell my cameraman, ‘I don’t want fancy photography – nothing ‘artistic’ – I want to have newsreel photography.’ Because I think every serious picture of today should be a kind of documentary of its time. Only then, in my opinion, do you get a quality of truth into a picture.”
It’s interesting to note that while Fritz Lang was in Hollywood – a town then crawling with talent from Germany – he only worked once with a cinematographer from central Europe. That was Ernest Laszlo who had been working in Hollywood since 1927 and never made a film in Europe and the film he made with Lang was “While the City Sleeps” in 1956.
Once the nonsense of “German expressionism” and the constant comparisons to his German films are blown away from the myth of Fritz Lang, what remains is the work of an eclectic and brilliant director. Lang would learn that to survive in Hollywood – and many German émigrés didn’t – he needed to make successful Hollywood films. The Viennese accent that Lang never lost in his speaking voice would be scrubbed out of his film language and Lang’s insistence not to be “arty” with “Fury” shows that he was willing to make that effort.
His complete lack of tact and his attitude (or his egotism) worked against his having a successful career in Hollywood. Lang had never met Louis B Mayer – the head of MGM – before and demanded a meeting when his film was edited after its first screening. Mayer offered a new and better contract and told Lang how much he loved “Fury.” Lang shouted at Mayer and berated him. According to the McGilligan book, Mayer is supposed to have said later, “Even if it costs me a million, or two million, this man is not going to make another movie at MGM.”
Lang believed that MGM and its producers and employees had formed a conspiracy against him and after the premiere of “Fury” – while Lang was walking arm-in-arm past the Brown Derby with Marlene Dietrich – Mankiewicz greeted Lang and offered his hand at Lang’s success. Lang said, “you ruined my film” and refused the handshake. It was a move that Lang would later regret.