February 15, 2011
The For the Love of Film (Noir) Blog-A-Thon began yesterday, and it’s my turn to jump in. The monster-sized Lloyd Bridges stomping on a panicked populace gives my subject away: The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me!, 1950). This whole event is raising money for the Film Noir Foundation’s efforts to restore it. Cy Endfield’s 1950 scorcher about a botched kidnapping job and the mob frenzy that follows is available to watch now on Netflix Instant, so everyone can see how important it is to get pristine 35mm prints of this back into circulation.
Jo Pagano adapted his own 1947 novel, The Condemned, into the screenplay, which is a fictionalized version of the murder of Brooke Hart in 1933. The same incident was also the basis for Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936). Hart was the son of a successful department store owner in San Jose, California. Thomas Harold
Thurmond and John M. Holmes drove Hart to the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge, hit him over the head with a concrete block, and tossed him into the San Francisco Bay. They then called Hart’s parents, demanding $40,000 for his release. After they were caught, the local papers spread the news that Thurmond and Holmes would plead insanity, enraging the populace. The Lindbergh Baby fiasco occurred the previous year, part of a wave of ransom kidnappings that hit Depression-scarred America, and people were in a vengeful mood. On November 27th, an angry mob stormed the jail, pulled out Thurmond and Holmes, and hung them until they were dead.
The Sound of Fury centers the story on one of the kidnappers, here named Howard Tyler (Frank Lovejoy). In Cy Endfield’s hard-bitten world, everyone is in it for the money. Howard is an out-of-work father, who moved his family to California with the hopes of hitting it big. Instead he drinks by himself at a bowling alley bar in the afternoon, where he spies Jerry Slocum (a styling Lloyd Bridges) knocking down pins. Jerry, smelling desperation, hooks Howard with the promise of a job offer. In a scene of startling homoeroticism, Jerry brings Howard to his apartment and shows off his rippling pectorals, urges him to feel his silken shirts, and then drops the offer to be his wheelman on some gas station robberies.
Howard reluctantly agrees, with the shadow of poverty inching over his unshaven visage. He starts coming home flush with cash, promising his wife a TV of their own and a full bag of potato chips for his son, who is startled at such abundance. It soon becomes clear that Jerry is equally desperate, running on cologne fumes and his own braggadocio. He’s filled with class resentment, a clotheshorse who can’t afford the best. He comes up with the kidnapping scheme, partly out of greed, but also malice. When their victim says he gets his suits tailored in NYC, the look of apoplectic rage on Bridges’ face is overwhelming. Later, when he snaps and smashes a guy’s face in with a cinder block, it’s no surprise.
These two petty thieves are contrasted with Gil Stanton (Richard Carlson), an upwardly mobile newspaper columnist whose outdoor BBQ would feed Howard’s family for weeks. It’s his columns that stoke the city’s rage regarding Jerry’s crime, including their possible insanity defense. Endfield’s repeated emphasis on economic issues makes Gil’s world almost grotesque. He only agrees to cover the case because his editor promises him a bonus, and the editor is chasing the story because blood moves papers. Everyone is corrupted, but because of his upbringing Gil doesn’t have to choose between crime and starvation.
Once Howard and Jerry are imprisoned, the film’s POV shifts to Gil, who undergoes a moral conversion upon seeing the violent rage his columns have provoked in the public. This section is problematic, simply a series of moralizing speeches about the humanity of everyone, even killers. The rich atmospheres of the first two-thirds give way to Gil’s tasteful living room. Endfiled was clearly not as invested in Gil’s milquetoast character, or the middle-class milieu he inhabits. The richly drawn, neurotic characters of Jerry and Howard are let go for cardboard cut-outs of moral propriety.
But thankfully this is just an interim, for the kicker is the nerve-jangling lynching scene, shot with little dialogue and unflinching brutality. In roiling chiaroscuro, the mob tears through the ineffecutal puffs of tear gas and battles their way into the jail cells. Lloyd Bridges wrenches his face into a beaming psychotic grin, an act of stunning bravado in the face of certain death, as the lynch mob ranges closer. Frank Lovejoy, as Howard, had played it quiet and morose throughout, as if he were already beaten in the opening frame. When they drag him away, past the mute, beaten faces of Gil and the police officers, there is no one left to help, and no cash to set him free.