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The screen descends into the courtroom


1936. MGM. Directed by Fritz Lang. With Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sidney

Remember what turns the tide at the lynching trial that takes up the second half of Fury?

The prosecution seems stymied because the whole town of Strand are providing alibis for each other and blaming the riot on "out-of-towners." We know different. We've seen good guy Joe Wilson, driving across the country to get married, get stopped by a police dragnet set up to find a gang of kidnappers. We've seen circumstantial evidence lead the sherrif to hold Joe in jail overnight; rumor, boredom, alcohol, and political opportunism do the rest. Over the course of an evening, ordinary townspeople—each a memorable individual, thanks to a dozen now-forgotten bit players—turn into a mob. They storm the jail and set it on fire with Joe trapped in his cell.

Months later, a crusading D.A. has indicted 22 people for Joe's murder. But he can't get testimony placing any of them at the scene of the crime. Will the court have to let them go free? Suddenly, a mysterious draped object is rolled into the courtroom. And then, in a dramatic and typically Langian shot, a white screen slides down from the top of the frame, Lang's camera reframes upwards to meet it, and suddenly we're looking at a movie within the movie. At this moment we remember, as do the defendants, that there were newsreel photographers present that night at the jail! At the time they seemed just part of the ballyhoo. Now the films they took turn up as eye-witnesses.

It's a powerful sequence. The projector noise starts up.A defendant turns and stares at the screen in dismay. Then we see a film of that same person enthusiastically helping batter down the jail door (his wife had sworn that he was at home all night). The newsreel image freezes, catching the man in a permanent posture of guilt. We see a woman next, and her image freezes just at the moment she's about to hurl a flaming rag onto a gasoline-soaked pile of rubble. Her face is distorted, vicious, quite a contrast to the weeping woman in the courtroom. The freeze-frames work on a number of levels, and make good use of the wrench that always happens when a moving image suddenly stops moving and turn into something uncannily still and silent.

In some movies, we see an event happen, we see an on-screen photographer taking films of that event, and then we later see the films that he has shot. (I'm thinking here of the animated insect short The Cameraman's Revenge and the Judy Holliday comedy It Should Happen to You, two movies that have probably never been mentioned in the same sentence before). Most often, the original footage is simply reused. In more sophisticated films, the director has taken the trouble to reshoot the scene from what would have been the on-screen cameraman's point of view. But in Fury, the "newsreel footage" repeats nothing. It shows us entirely new views of the lynching, things that were going on while our (and Lang's, you'd have to say) attention was somewhere else. This new information makes the riot even more horrible that we'd realized. For example, we understand belatedly why the fire raged out of control: the local barber, we now see, ran around attacking the fire hoses with an axe.

Showing films in court is an ingenious legal maneuver and a great storytelling device. It serves also to blur the distinction between film as the creator of romantic fictions and film as the recorder of actual events; a useful tactic for this part-didactic, part-sentimental movie. And finally, it brings back and amplifies those very disturbing lynch-mob sequences that by this time in the movie we, the audience, are already trying to forget. We experience dismay and revulsion as vividly anyone on the jury.

Like so many good self-referential moments, the newsreel within Fury momentarily makes us forget whether we are observers or participants, and, if we're observers, of which film.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein