After fleeing Nazi-Germany (with a stop in France to make LILIOM/’33), Fritz Lang spent two years in L.A. limbo waiting for new employer M-G-M to sign off on a project. And while he’d never admit it, Lang’s career was almost surely rescued by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, segueing from writer to producer under Louis B. Mayer’s protection at the time. Mank worked up a treatment (credited to Norman Krasna) for the sort of socially-conscious pic you’d never expect from M-G-M. And while the film is hardly without its awkward & naïve moments (something Lang-in-Hollywood would never quite shed), his first Stateside film remains powerful & artistically impressive. Spencer Tracy, still new at the studio, found his dramatic footing playing an Ordinary Joe, jailed on very little evidence for a kidnapping charge on his way to meet fiancée Sylvia Sidney. But when word of the arrest gets out, the small town turns into a lynching inferno, with the jail burnt down along with the innocent man locked inside. Only he’s not dead, just hardened, lost to the spirit of mankind and seeking revenge against the upstanding citizens of the mob who ‘killed’ him. Let them all stand trial for his murder . . . he’ll enjoy the spectacle. Lang gets some fabulous effects throughout the pic, holding at times to German Expressionist principles (greatly helped by Joseph Ruttenberg’s lensing), particularly in the use of mass movement while spotting telling detail within the crowd. Not everything works: courtroom tactics, character quirks and some ham-handed clue planting can now seem a little obvious. But not enough to hold back the impression of a society dominated by its worst elements or to lift the stench of his own burning flesh Tracy conveys. (The fellow Tracy, and most of the cast, really wanted to strangle was the infernally demanding Fritz Lang.) Not even a slightly softened ending can wash the bitter taste of this one out of your mouth.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Lang was such a monomaniacal perfectionist bastard on set, he pretty much burned his bridges at M-G-M. So too, in a different way, producer Joe Mankiewicz who made this difficult ‘message’ picture over the objections of studio head L. B. Mayer. So when it came out to strong reviews, and even a bit of profit, Mank was really in the doghouse. He’d made the greatest of all Hollywood errors . . . being right. He’d eventually have his contract assigned to 20th/Fox, where he'd write and direct.