The Sound of Fury opens with a kind of portent. A demonstrative street preacher yells out at the pedestrians walking by to “Prepare to meet thy God and Repent of their sins.” He pretty much gets trampled with all his pamphlets ending up on the ground in a sea of humanity. It’s really not all that important why it happens, but it does show the indifference and the frenzy that so easily overtakes the masses.
Howard Tyler (Frank Lovejoy) is a man down on his luck with a wife and son to provide for and no job. Life has hit the skids. At home, his demure wife (Kathleen Ryan) pleads with him to find work because every day she’s begging for groceries, and trying to make ends meet. With her pregnancy and a little boy always asking his Pop for stuff, it’s enough to make a guy despondent. He feels totally useless.
It’s in moments like these where honest living seems to give you zilch, only heartbreak, and it’s easy enough for decent men to get enticed by evil. It starts innocently enough, and it’s all for the sake of a buck as Tyler gets seduced by the sirens of noir.
I use this metaphorically because what really does it is a meeting in a bowling alley. He goes there to drown his sorrows. Instead, he meets a confident man finishing up a frame named Jerry Slocum. Slocum’s swimming in dough with fine threads and not a care in the world. Howard looks at his life with envy.
Years before Michael Jackson, Lloyd Bridges proves himself to be a smooth criminal. You probably already can see where this is going without it being spelled out. However, in order to make it explicit, Howard signs on as a getaway driver. He keeps the motor running as Jerry cleans out the cashboxes of local gas stations.
Suddenly, they’re both implicated in a life of crime. At this point, there is no salvaging their lives, as they submerge deeper and deeper. They go so far as to kidnap the son of an influential man. This is far bigger than Howard ever dared to imagine, but he cannot get out — not now.
The Sound of Fury looks to integrate a few more characters. Initially, we don’t know how they fit exactly. It’s a dinner party. A man and his wife. They have a house guest and then his editor (Art Smith) from the newspaper drops by. He’s trying to get his top columnist to look into some local robberies. They hold a discourse on the destruction of public health, sensationalism, and social responsibility of the press. It all feels a bit didactic if altogether well-meaning. It also has no power to save Howard.
The kidnappers send out a ransom note and wait. For Jerry, he plays it cool. It comes naturally as he reunites with his best girl (Adele Jergens), an opportunistic blonde who has dreams of leaving her crummy life behind for the exoticism of Havana. She doesn’t care how Jerry bankrolls it; she’s just impressed that he can. They’re like fire and ice constantly scorching each other and making up just as ferociously.
Lovejoy is coupled up with the other girl (Katherine Locke) in the back seat. If not for the fact that he’s already married, they might be a decent match because they both have a similar propriety and quiet humility. Alas, it can never be. Not only because of his family life but they’re also embroiled in a crime that cannot be easily brushed off. There’s no turning back.
When they pull up to a club with the girls it’s almost like watching a film through funhouse mirrors or something with contorted angles distorting the floorshow and all the gaiety on the floor. It’s totally unnerving. This is just the beginning as Lovejoy’s character falls to pieces. He’s not made for this life of duplicity. It unhinges him as he implicates himself and the film begins to run on this wild energy that will see it through to the end.
It’s the final moments of the film where it stakes its entire reputation as we face an onslaught on so many fronts: visual, emotional, and psychological. We watch the masses descend on the courthouse to gawk, condemn and belittle the criminals after they are brought in. There is no quelling the tide of the momentum and from thenceforward the movie gets carried away by the mob.
Evoking the same ardent energy of Fritz Lang’s Fury (adapted from the same source material), it’s a bit like a modern storming of the bastille. The culprits fly through the jail like apes and howling banshees, and the feeble attempts by the police to maintain any semblance of law and order are quickly snuffed out.
Many generations later, The Sound of Fury feels like one of the most obvious pleas against the swells of McCarthyism in the company of more notable indictments like High Noon or even Invasion of the Body-Snatchers. It’s not merely about the narrative speaking volumes, but the resulting effect on many of its cast members. Cy Enfield was soon forced to flee to England, and he would finish the rest of his career abroad.
The great character actor Art Smith — memorable in everything from Ride the Pink Horse to In a Lonely Place would watch a reliable career go down the tubes. Lloyd Bridges was also affected although he was able to find some relief by cooperating with HUAC. So while they weren’t lynched, it was men like these who were given a damning choice.
They could name names or hold fast and commit career suicide, receiving all the ignominy that came with such a choice. Neither could they stop the tide of fury leading to blacklisting and self-exile, and worst still, they probably more than saw the writing on the wall. There’s nothing more terrifying. You see the malevolent forces at work, and you’re powerless to do anything about them.
The parallels between the movie and real life hardly point-for-point between two killers and accused communist sympathizers. What’s relevant is the wide-ranging reaction top-to-bottom, be it fear or this kind of embittered, hate-filled retribution. Suddenly there is no place for civil discourse. Emotions, which are not inherently bad, begin to boil over and dominate the social spheres.
I’m not an authority on the Red Scare or McCarthyism, nor did I ever experience the full brunt of the Cold War, but even as the issues change and the times with them, at our core, human nature always seems to adhere to the same patterns. True, we are predisposed toward avarice and turpitude, but even our battle cries for justice fall far short.
The fact that the movie was released under two titles and never truly caught on or that Enfield is not more of a household name feels like a cruel sign of the times. Watching it now, from its opening images of a fire and brimstone street preacher to the devastating final acts of violence, it’s sure to rattle the cage. Hopefully, now, we’re better able to appreciate it, and heed its warnings on the state of humanity.