Two films of 1936, Chaplin’s Modern Times and Fritz Lang’s Fury (with Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sydney), appear to have little in common. The former sardonically depicts a man at odds with industrial society, while the latter deals with the lynching of an innocent man. While Chaplin’s themes are serious, Modern Times always maintains a cheery or sentimental attitude. Fury, on the other hand, descends quickly and unrelentingly into solemn and emotional intensity against mob rule and violence. And hovering over both films is a brutality, a force, resembling fascism, in the form of mob behavior rising above the law, the law using or submitting to the mob’s tactics, and a steadily dehumanizing process that involves a mechanistic approach to human conduct in and out of the factory. Yet, at their core, these films, their themes, do not necessarily mirror so much as comment on and illuminate the other.
The paradigm of dehumanization is the assembly line. Mechanization might be good for business but is business good for the employee? The owner watches the employee at the steel factory. The tramp gets a break and has a smoke in the lavatory when the owner comes on the screen and shouts: “Get back to work!” The boss also gives orders to the machine operator, the same order each time: “Speed it up!” The speed increases the worker’s repetitious work. Worse, the speed assumes that the worker is doing nothing but his job. The tramp tightens bolts on a conveyor belt. There’s no time to sneeze, talk, or yawn. When he takes a break, he cannot stop the wrenching movements. Later, during his nervous breakdown, manufactured by the hysterical speed of his labor, he is consumed by the machinery itself – in one of Chaplin’s best-visualized symbols of the problem of technological man (and alluding to the workers consumed by the machine during Freder’s vision in Lang’s Metropolis).
From the start, Fury‘s cinematic strategy is based on assumption. Lang manipulates the audience and the film’s characters into making conjectures about various aspects of the drama. In an otherwise innocent aside, the brothers of Joe Wilson (Tracy) come back to their apartment, the younger one drunk. That night, after Joe had sent his fiancé out of town, he had brought a dog back. The drunken brother sees the dog and says, “Look at the dog.” His brother disgustedly replies, “You’re drunk,” only to turn and see a dog standing on the other side of the room. Later, en route to join his fiancé and marry her, Joe Wilson is stopped and detained by the police looking for a kidnapper-murderer. Soon, to the sheriff, his guilt seems assured when Joe displays a passion for peanuts; the kidnapper had the same passion. More damning, Joe somehow has a five-dollar note that was part of the ransom money. Once the crowd at the local saloon has heard that the sheriff arrested someone, they attempt to lynch Joe because of the powerfully circumstantial links to the crime.
The assumptions do not cease after the mob burns the jail (they couldn’t get to Joe in the cell and did the next best thing). Eventually, twenty-two people in the lynch mob are brought to trial for murder. It is one of the many subtle twists in this film that the very thing that fortified and provoked the crowd’s assurance of Joe’s guilt now becomes the main element of skepticism for their own. Their defense, at first, is based largely on a phrase repeated by their lawyer when he objects to the prosecutor’s line of questioning: “You are assuming a fact not yet proved.” True, the entire proceedings have been brought on the assumption that Joe Wilson died in the fire. However, nobody can or will put the twenty-two at the scene of the crime. Craftily, the prosecution suckered the defense because a newsreel film of the event had recorded all the participants’ actions. Their alibis are destroyed, but then they rely on the fact that there’s no evidence of a body, save for a few bones (Joe’s dog’s). Again, all falls away because Joe, seeking revenge against the twenty-two, plants evidence to prove he was indeed killed.
To complete (but not exhaust) the cycle of assumptions, Joe Wilson, his brothers, and the film audience feel justified seeking revenge. No matter how it could be done, including tampering with evidence, the twenty-two townspeople deserve a guilty verdict and the death penalty. We cannot help sympathizing despite Joe’s increasingly ashen demeanor. Lang further links the audience to Joe by putting Joe in a theater and seeing how much the folk were enthused over the dramatic burning of the jail.
Over the course of the film, the smallest assumptions (everyday observations) are tied to the larger ones (justice: mob and civil varieties). On their last night together, Joe’s fiancé asks him for some peanuts. He laughs at her and wonders why because she doesn’t like peanuts. Her response could serve as the coda for Fury:
“I love you. You love peanuts. I love peanuts.”
In her response lies the logic of all the actions I’ve described above. A logic that takes us either way: to love or to a lynching. In fact, so great an emphasis on assumptions fills Furythat we must stop and acknowledge the obvious.
A joke goes that when one assumes one makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me.” What this joke obscures, though, is that all human life continues on the basis of assumptions, more than we can come up with or count. Customs, law, tradition, social niceties, hierarchy, etc., not to mention the uncountable list of things we simply “depend on,” that is, assume will be the conditions for the way we act at each moment. Fury touches on this fundamental, if often problematic, aspect of human existence to the point of making a philosophical statement or, better, of having a philosophical or phenomenological density. Stanley Cavell, in his book Contesting Tears, makes a strong case for several 1930s and 1940s films (Stella Dallas, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Now, Voyager, and Gaslight) having a similar density. That is, like Fury, these films address human situations and, in dramatic forms, set up philosophical categories. Not philosophy, they are portals for philosophical understanding. In a sense, Cavell shows how films once considered lightweight (women’s films, tearjerkers) actually have an unexpected seriousness. In Fury‘s case, Lang acknowledges the problematic aspect of “assumption” and could make the nihilistic case that all human behavior rests on a thin sheet of ice and human conduct cannot proceed until all doubt (assumptions are confirmed) has been cleared away. The film, though, recognizes the need for assumptions and how we are bound as a community through assumptions, but all of our institutions and behavior are susceptible to becoming hardened into mechanical, inhuman forms. In love, as well as lynching.
The factory in Modern Times, like any other factory, builds assumptions into its machines and workers in order to make a more and more profitable product. Chaplin accentuates the mechanistic assumptions to illustrate their deleterious effects on the tramp and then transposes the technological ethos onto the social and political. After the tramp’s release from the hospital, he is walking along the street and a red flag falls from the back of a truck. He picks up the flag and pursues the truck, not seeing the hundreds of demonstrators turning a corner behind him. As happened to Joe Wilson, the police assume he is leading the demonstrators and arrest him. Prison life also is reduced to mechanical behavior. The prisoners are marched in lines to their cells and the mess hall. Then Chaplin plays with our assumptions by assigning the tramp to a cell with an imposing cellmate whom, we learn, is more concerned with needlepoint than bossing the tramp.
The authorities throughout the film, starting with factory boss to the jail warden to the detectives pursuing the gamin, are all portrayed as having faith in the systems they represent, having little tolerance of protest, and prone to violence. These qualities Chaplin links to the faith in mechanization to produce an orderly world. Even the tramp succumbs to the prison routine and panics when he is set free – in fact he tries to get immediately rearrested.
In Fury‘s greater scheme, beyond the lynching, we have an aide (an early form of the media-savvy advisor) dissuade the governor from sending the National Guard to intervene because the aide assumes Wilson must be guilty. But the chaos Lang bares behind this and other assumptions also oozes into the audience. The viewer is ultimately drawn into this critical mass of assumptions by identifying with Wilson as the victim. He can do no wrong, especially when he takes revenge against the mob. Here, also, Fury anticipates our present time when victims strike back and receive sympathetic hearings from Larry King to Oprah. Indeed, many of Lang’s films involve some form of revenge, including You Only Live Once, Man Hunt, Scarlet Street, Rancho Notorious, The Big Heat, The Blue Gardenia, and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (several of these also contain sophisticated critiques of “the media”). Wilson, though, gradually takes on a demonic quality in exacting his eye for an eye – twenty-two eyes, that is. Wilson is further linked to us when he watches the progress of the trial in a movie theater. Only he becomes bitter seeing the audience’s (our) excitement over the dramatic razing of the jail. Logically, the defendants represent the audience in the sense that we are targets of his rage, a logic established by his fiancé: We want Joe to have his revenge; Joe rages against movie audiences; we want Joe to have his revenge on us. A theater of annihilation. The rage and turmoil and conspiracies and spineless politics of the Weimer Republic represented in his German films have been suddenly Americanized. Not that Fury so much accuses the United States of being fascist, but it does discern a fascist potential beneath the democratic surface.
Where Modern Times manifests the problems of mechanization largely within the social and economic system, Fury depicts crowd behavior with assumptive allusions to the mechanical world. Bullying and social injustice are evoked by the leaders of the crowd in the bar calling for Wilson’s punishment. The police in Modern Times, like those in Fury, tend to be passive conveyors of the generalized assumptions, just seemingly stable enough to maintain a decent, orderly society. The assumptive priorities of the mob, the authorities, and the industrial society are ultimately merged.
Both films link these to the audience. Lang’s cinema, in general, is aware of its status as a “movie,” and a viewer can find ample references in Fury to the act of watching movies. Lang makes the audience complicit in Joe’s act of revenge against the mob, just as in M(1931) he gets the audience to root for the criminals to catch Beckert. Our sympathy for his ordeal places us in his narrative corner. Lang is careful to show filmmaking, in the guise of a news crew, as a mechanical activity. Paradoxically, modern technology allows this magical act to exist! Likewise, movie watching depends on the assumptions of genre, music, and plot. Then, in a circular fashion, Joe’s revenge takes on the same moral depravity as the mob’s lynching of Joe. Our sympathy for Joe’s revenge implicates the audience’s latent fascism or, better, our giving in to the most mechanistic assumptions.
Chaplin reluctantly surrendered to sound technology nine years after The Jazz Singer.Modern Times just as reluctantly uses sound and does so by associating its introduction into Chaplin’s work with the factory. In the logic of greater productive capacity, efficiency, and more profit, the factory owner allows an experiment whereby his workers can be fed while working. When the inventor explains the process, instead of speaking he uses a phonograph record (the voice is similar to that of the man who explains the talking picture at R.F.’s party in Singin’ in the Rain, 1952). In fact, all attempts at speaking in the film, until Chaplin sings his nonsense song in the restaurant/dance hall, are done through a mechanical medium. The eating machine’s introduction alludes to the advent of talking pictures and how absurd the addition of sound must be to moving images. The entire film has an inner tension between sound and silence, culminating in the dance hall scene, and even here we only get a parody of words in a song. One senses that Chaplin’s gentle if cutting critique of his audience’s new and established taste for sound is based on the public’s assumption that the mechanization of voices is harmless. He takes them to task for allowing another mechanization to be heaped upon the public consciousness.
The audience’s implication within the mechanistic violence implied in Modern Times and Fury will not truly come to cinematic fruition for another thirty-six years in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1972). When Alex is subjected to the Ludovico treatment, he is likewise bound in a chair, but force-fed violent cinematic images. Along with a special drug regimen, the treatment creates an efficient, mechanized moral model of a human being, a perfect solution for the moral managers of mankind. The explicit link to Chaplin comes from a line by the Home Secretary, Frederick (Alexander Singer), when he introduces Alex during the first public demonstration of the treatment’s effectiveness: “So much words. Actions speak louder than.” These are the same words spoken by the mechanical voice before the eating machine is demonstrated. The fascistic implication of the eating machine becomes apparent during the Ludovico treatment as Alex watches reel after reel of Hitler rallies and the German blitzkrieg.
Kubrick’s cinema systematically attacks passive movie watching, or, at least, understands the problematic nature of his own movies, which at times seem to blur the violent action with the audience’s passive acceptance of that action – in a Langian fashion. Kubrick subverts many of his plots by spoiling the assumptions of the genres within which he operates. In a sense, the mechanics of genre are thrown off and the audience is left on its own. This is where the audience of Fury is left, deprived of a satisfactory ending, if one were possible, when Joe gives up his plan of vengeance but does not seem to accept any redemption from his fiancé or the law. Only Katherine seems to have matured, and she hasn’t given up on Joe. Likewise, Chaplin did not give up on cinema after adapting himself to sound features. His next film, The Great Dictator (1940), takes on the hydra of fascism itself, as Lang would later do in Man Hunt (1941) and Hangman Also Die (1943).
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Several other parallels emerge between Modern Times and Fury. Both use television or movie screens to link the mechanistic form to watching a movie. In Chaplin’s, the screen becomes the means to lord over the worker more than ever. Lang, on the other hand, associates several assumptions leading to a false conclusion (Joe Wilson is dead; the twenty-two are guilty of murder) through playing the newsreel during the trial. On a minor and less effective (aesthetically) scale, both directors use animal metaphors to show crowd behavior: the men going into the factory are portrayed as sheep, while the women gossiping about Joe Wilson’s evident guilt are depicted as clucking hens.
More importantly, each film depicts a romantic relationship and idyll instrumental to the characters’ development and raising of the stakes for the tramp’s and Joe’s situation. Both couples dream of a future together. The tramp initially takes the blame for the gamin’s theft of a loaf of bread because he felt sympathy for her and he wanted to return to jail. Later, they end up in the same paddy wagon, escape, and walk around the city. At one point, they sit beside a tree outside a nice house and dream of their lives in that house. This would be their future if the tramp had money. The gamin creates their ideal in spirit when she takes the most broken-down shack and tries to make it “home.” Soon he learns that the factory is reopening and rushes back to the place that drove him nuts. So powerful is this dream. Only this time, the machinery consumes his supervisor. Moreover, just as he is getting adjusted to his new apprentice job, the workers go on strike. His assumption of a happy future is finally dashed when during the strike he accidentally hits a policeman with a brick and is hauled back to jail. The gamin doesn’t abandon him and helps him find work at the restaurant. Social forces ultimately deprive them of economic comfort and happiness, but they optimistically take off together down a modern road to an uncertain future.
Fury starts with Joe and Katherine standing before a bedroom furniture display. They envision (assume) a future together. At first, it seems to work out. Joe buys a gas station and saves his brothers from working for the local gangster. A year later, Joe’s ready to marry and makes his fateful cross-state journey. After he escaped the jail fire, Joe urges his brothers to get revenge on the town mob but will not allow his brothers to tell Katherine he is alive. His plan will work much better if she assumes he is dead. Joe’s love remains static; she becomes a pawn in his revenge plan. When Katherine finds out Joe is alive (peanuts give her the clue), she confronts Joe and tells him his revenge is wrong and she won’t be party to it. His assumption – “Katherine loves Joe; Joe wants revenge; Katherine wants revenge” – is fractured. Fury demonstrates that she has grown in her love for him and won’t blindly, mechanically, follow his lead. She has the strength to leave the assumption factory, but it is unclear Joe has the will to reconstruct himself to follow her. It is equally clear that the audience itself, thoroughly identifying with Joe, can regroup and leave behind Lang’s cinematic assumptions leading to politically and aesthetically mechanistic reactions.