Fritz Lang's first American film, Fury (1936), was released on DVD this week as part of Warner’s Controversial Classics Collection box set, and while it’s not entirely clear what designates each film as being “controversial,” I’m not going to quibble; Warner continues to set the standard for excellent transfers, noteworthy extras, and comparatively low prices for such classic titles.

Lang’s talents are also fully on display in this film, too, although his transition from European to Hollywood production generated its share of tensions–rigid shooting schedules, difficult stars, and a studio that prided itself on glossy musicals frustrated Lang, known for personal, extravagant epics like Die Niebelungen (1924) and Metropolis (1927), or dark thrillers like the Dr. Mabuse films and M (1931). But Lang had studied architecture, and like nearly all of these earlier films, Fury offers a striking portrait of the structure of society; its assorted classes, organizations and technologies, and methods of law and order are mapped out with fine dramatic precision.

Fury stars Spencer Tracy in an early role as Joe Wilson, a struggling, middle class businessman in Chicago whose fiancÈ moves across the country for a job opportunity. In the early parts of the film, Joe seems well-intentioned if a bit hamstrung–his constant mispronunciation of “momentum” is telling in more ways than one as he labors to achieve financial stability in order to get married. Joe eventually sets the wheels in motion and drives across the country to join his lover, only to be mistaken as a criminal, arrested, and made the intended target of a community lynching.

Lang approaches the story analytically, focusing on Joe’s quest for professional and romantic achievement. The film’s opening shots portray Joe and his finacÈ, Katherine (Silvia Sidney), gazing longingly at a storefront display that represents archetypical married life and prosperity, but Joe’s bitter awakening to the darker forces of social psychology amount to a cultural betrayal.

Lang is at his best sketching the small town hierarchy, its gossipers and rabble rousers, its understaffed and no-nonsense sheriff, its speculating barbershops and townsfolk who turn traditional principles into precepts of oppression. As rumors simmer around Joe’s incarceration, Lang’s carefully charts the impending riot, the threatening turns of social psychology that can inspire mob mentality. Its eruption is inevitable, and when it does, Lang deftly cuts between the various individuals and factions involved, from the lynchers descending on the police station to the officers standing their ground to the governor’s office weighing its political options–to Joe’s defenseless terror. Impressively, Lang even includes bloodthirsty newsreel reporters, suggesting troubling ethical questions long before the age of television.

Although Fury is not a perfect achievement on the level of his late-German thrillers, largely due to studio constraints and various dramatic formulas, it is nevertheless a brilliant depiction of mob rule and the social furies it engenders as well as thrives upon.

The DVD contains an amiable commentary by Peter Bogdanovich, whose approach I think I’m beginning to warm up to these days. For one, although he alludes to a degree of personal animosity with the filmmaker related to their talks in the ’60s, he admirably focuses on the filmmaker’s virtues as an artist. Furthermore, he largely refrains from his typical vocal impersonations (a practice he has offered for DVD commentaries on the films of Welles, Hitchcock, and Hawks), simply playing excerpts from his recordings with Lang.

I was, however, surprised that Bogdanovich blithely repeats Lang’s famous account of having fled Berlin the night after being asked by Goebbels to lead the Nazi film industry, a claim many film scholars have questioned in recent years. (Lang appears to have returned to Germany off and on for several months and Goebbels never mentioned the event in his diaries, for starters.) While Bogdanovich’s comments generally seem less rigorous, they are personal, critical, and surprisingly affectionate, and are a welcome addition to the disc.

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