Despite a catch-penny tile, “Try and Get Me” (aka Sound of Fury) remains a truly frightening movie whose disturbing imagery lingers long after the voice-over reassurances subside. The director, Cy Endfield, was one of the lower profile victims of the Mc Carthy purges. Viewing this movie now, it’s easy to see why.
Family man and returning vet Howard Tyler (played by the always low-key Frank Lovejoy) is recruited into a life of crime by no more than ordinary desires for the American Dream. Desperate and unemployed, he falls into the clutches of a swaggering stickup man superbly played by a preening Lloyd Bridges. (Notice how subtly Bridges bends Tyler to his will on their first meeting at the bowling alley.) Joining Bridges, Tyler finally gets the standing he desires, but the spiral he has entered dooms him and his family’s share of America’s promise. (Note that conspicuous among the lynch mob’s vanguard are fraternity boys, true to the actual event on which the movie is based.)
Throughout, the lighting and photography effectively undermine the facile voice of reason that the producers probably felt obligated to include. Endfield may have wanted an anti- violence film, but the resulting visual landscape implies a world of endemic violence. A sense of powerlessness pervades the film, one that mere admonishments cannot overcome. As a result, the characters appear caught in some terrible metaphysical web from which there is no escape. Events march relentlessly on to a conclusion that remains one of the most harrowing in Hollywood history. This is film noir at its darkest and most frightening.
Something should be noted in passing about the compellingly exotic performance of Katherine Locke as Hazel the manicurist. Watch her facial expressions as this highly repressed plain-faced woman experiences yet one more rejection in what a paste-on smile shows to be a lifetime of rejections. Never has a blossom perched so precariously on a cheap hairdo conveyed as much lower-class longing as hers, while the car ride with a guilt-ridden Tyler could serve as tawdry inspiration for a dozen feminist tracts. What ever became of this unusual actress, I wonder.
Without doubt, however, the film’s dramatic high point is the lynch mob. It’s one of the most coldly unnerving 20 minutes in movie annals, far surpassing (in my view) the better-known Fury (1936) in its depiction of mass violence. The fact that the mob is made up of ordinary citizens brought to fever pitch is especially telling. Unthinking violence is thus shown as potentially present in us all.
At the same time, the screenplay refuses to take the easy way out. In fact, Howard and Jerry are guilty, unlike, say, the three unfortunate cowboys in The Oxbow Incident (1943). Thus, what repels us is not the fact that innocent men are killed for a crime they didn’t commit. That would be too easy. Instead, I think we’re unnerved by how the crowd appears to celebrate the brutality of vigilante justice. Endfield succeeds in making this aspect especially ugly. Yes, in a very general sense, justice is served—murderers are in fact punished for their crime—but if so, justice is served in a particularly barbaric way even if the act does have popular support. In my little book, Endfield has fashioned the most effective of all anti- lynching movies, in part because it doesn’t take the easy way out.
That Endfield exiled himself to England and a conventional career with Stanley Baker, shows how much was lost among those purge victims whose disappearance, unlike many others, went generally unnoticed. Just a couple of years after the remarkable “Try and Get Me” (and Endfield’s also provocative “Underworld Story”), Hollywood began sanitizing the screen with the escapism of period spectacles, Technicolor westerns, and full-cleavage sex goddesses. Indeed times had changed. As Endfield already knew, the studios had to fight the Cold War too. There would be no more thought-provoking Try and Get Me’s.