Mob violence must’ve been on Fritz Lang’s mind, after making M and fleeing nazis. This is my second or third favorite of his films, a powerhouse drama with a simmering Spencer Tracy, a wrong-man revenge tale. Makes me all upset every time I watch it. I always forget the incriminating word slip that reveals to Tracy’s girl that he’s still alive: it’s memento/momentum.
It’s hard to skim Patrick McGilligan’s Lang bio since it’s full of conflicting stories told by Lang himself, a notorious fabricator. It seems in the original script, Joe was an honest lawyer and after he’s presumed dead his wife (not fiancee) falls in love with a rival attorney. Joe plans to let the townsfolk/mob hang after some are convicted, but he’s discovered by the attorney/wife who run to stop the hanging. No redemption for Joe – he pulls a gun to stop them. Lang suggested Joe become more likable and the wife take over the story after Joe is “killed” so women will have more to enjoy from the film. “There was indeed a tremendous amount of social awareness in the early versions, which featured breadlines, black characters, even a settlement house where Katherine worked. [Newspaperman, The Front Page screenwriter] Cormack’s first rewrite cleared away some of the social commentary; more would disappear as he honed the script.” Lang had shot scenes to visualize Joe’s guilt: ghosts emerging from behind trees to chase him. At the first test screening, which was Lang’s own cut, “after the ghosts came on the public didn’t stop laughing.” So producer Joe Mankiewicz recut the film, removing the ghosts and shooting a final scene where Joe’s wife hugs him forgivingly (which was never in the Lang version) and the movie opened to acclaim. Lang began a lifelong feud with Mankiewicz and studio head Louis Mayer swore Lang would never work at MGM again – some way to begin his Hollywood career. Fury made a star out of Spencer Tracy and exiled Fritz Lang to make westerns and sequels.