(director/writer: Fritz Lang; screenwriters: Bartlett Cormack/ based on a story by Norman Krasna; cinematographer: Joseph Ruttenberg; editor: Frank Sullivan; cast: Spencer Tracy (Joe Wilson), Sylvia Sidney (Katherine Grant), Walter Brennan (“Buggs” Meyers), Walter Abel (District Attorney), Bruce Cabot (Kirby Dawson), Edward Ellis (Sheriff Hummel), Frank Albertson (Charlie Wilson), George Walcott (Tom Wilson), Frederick Burton (Judge Hopkins), Jonathan Hale (Defense Attorney), Howard Hickman (Governor), Arthur Stone (Durkin), Morgan Wallace (Fred Garrett); Runtime: 94; MGM; 1936)
“Fritz Lang’s first American film since leaving Nazi Germany is an eye-opener about a lynch mob in a small town.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Fritz Lang’s first American film since leaving Nazi Germany is an eye-opener about a lynch mob in a small town. Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy) is a regular ‘joe,’ a hard-working stiff, a decent guy, who is living in Chicago with his two brothers, Tom (Walcott) and Charlie (Albertson). He is engaged to Katherine Grant (Sylvia Sidney), but can’t save up enough money to marry her. She takes the train West for a better paying job as a teacher. Before she departs she gives him the wedding ring her father gave to her mother, sews up his ripped trench coat, corrects him when he mistakenly says the wrong word for memento, and kisses him goodbye.
A year goes by and Joe buys a car and tells Katherine that he will meet her to get married in Capitol City, and that he has quit his job and hopes to open a gas station. Driving through the rural back roads and camping out at night while going to met her, he arrives at a near-by town called Strand. But the deputy sheriff, “Buggs” Meyers (Walter Brennan), comes upon him waving a shotgun and arrests him. He accuses him of the kidnapping of a little girl. The sheriff (Ellis) finds salted peanuts on him just like the kidnapper had in his pocket, he also has a five dollar bill that matches one of the numbers of the ransom money, and he fits the general description of the suspect. In jail, he waits for the district attorney to look at his claim of innocence.
In the local bar, the town citizens go into a rage when learning that an arrest has been made in the kidnapping. Fueled by angry talk about getting back at the kidnapper and of having the deputy inadvertently telling them of the ransom money found on the suspect, a mob storms the jail, burns it down and dynamites it when they can’t get through to the prisoner’s jail cell. The sheriff called the governor for the National Guard, but one of the governor’s political advisers countermanded that request saying it wouldn’t look right for the governor in an election year to call out troops for those he wants to vote for him.
Katherine hears what has happened on the radio and rushes to the neighboring town of Strand only to see him engulfed by flames in his cell, and becomes convinced that he died. Somehow Joe escapes, but his dog Rainbow dies. The next day the newspapers announce that the guilty kidnapper confesses.
Joe makes his way back to Chicago and tells his brothers, who are startled to see him alive, that he wants revenge. He thereby supplies his brothers with the names of the 22 leaders in the lynch mob. An ambitious district attorney (Walter Abel) prosecutes the 22 for murder. Katherine, not knowing he’s alive, remains in a state of shock. She is asked to be a witness that she saw Joe burn to death. Meanwhile, the defense claims that it can’t be a charge of murder without a corpse.
The trial proves to be interesting as the citizens in this close-knit, respectable community lie under oath, providing alibis for each other to prove they couldn’t have been at the jail. The sheriff also lies, saying he can’t identify anyone in the mob. But proof comes by way of a newsreel cameraman who caught the whole incident on film. As for proof of the corpse, an anonymous letter is addressed to the judge enclosed with the wedding ring Katherine gave Joe. In the note memento is misspelled, which makes Katherine realize that Joe is alive.
When the sentence is announced 20 of the accused are found guilty of murder, but Joe marches into the courtroom and gives a pious speech explaining what happened. Katherine forgives him, and this very strong film ends on a weak note. But don’t blame Lang for all the changes in the film, of trying to take the town off the hook by introducing this wild revenge motive. MGM couldn’t bear to have it made the way Lang wanted it, that is, by having Tracy be lynched. Instead they wanted to stop short of condemning so many small American towns where lynchings actually do occur, and they thereby meddled throughout the entire script. To Lang’s credit, he still did not let the good citizens off the moral hook. His portrayal of the attempted lynching was powerfully done and was not compromised. The citizens didn’t care that they almost lynched an innocent man as much as they cared about protecting the reputation of their town and would do anything to keep their 22 vigilantes from going to jail, even perjuring themselves. Their reaction to seeing Joe alive was satisfying only in that it meant they weren’t going to be convicted. Lang by no means implies that the town has learned its lesson from this incident. But he does imply that a dark side to Joe Wilson has been exposed and the jovial innocent guy as seen in the beginning of the film, has been changed forever.
REVIEWED ON 3/10/2000 GRADE: B+ https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/