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fritz lang's first american film since leaving nazi germany , is an eye-opener about a lynch mob in a small town .
joe wilson ( spencer tracy ) is a regular joe , a hard-working stiff , a decent guy , who is living with his two brothers , tom ( walcott ) and charlie ( albertson ) , in chicago .
he is engaged to katherine grant ( sylvia sidney ) , but can't save up enough money to marry her .
she takes the train west for a better paying job as a teacher .
before she departs , she gives him the wedding ring her father gave to her mother , sews up his ripped trench coat , corrects him when he mistakingly says the wrong word for memento , and kisses him goodbye .
a year goes by and joe buys a car and tells katherine that he will meet her to get married in capitol city , that he has quit his job and hopes to open a gas station .
driving through the rural backroads and camping out at night while going to met her , he arrives at a near-by town called strand .
but the deputy sheriff " buggs " meyers ( walter brennan ) comes upon him waving a shotgun and arrests him .
he accuses him of the kidnapping of a little girl .
the sheriff ( ellis ) finds salted peanuts on him just like the kidnapper had in his pocket , he also has a five dollar bill on him that matches one of the numbers of the ransom money , and he fits the general description of the suspect .
locked in jail , he waits for the district attorney to look at his claim of innocence .
in the local bar , the town citizens go into a rage when learning that an arrest has been made in the kidnapping .
fueled by angry talk about getting back at the kidnapper and of having the deputy inadvertently telling them of the ransom money found on the suspect , a mob storms the jail , burns it down and dynamites it when they can't get through to the prisoner's jail cell .
the sheriff called the governor for the national guard , but one of his political advisers countermanded that request , saying it wouldn't look right for the governor in an election year to call out troops for those he wants to vote for him .
somehow joe escapes , but his dog rainbow dies .
katherine hears what has happened on the radio and rushes to the neighboring town of strand only to see him engulfed by flames in his cell , and becomes convinced that he died .
the next day the newspapers announce that the guilty kidnapper confesses .
joe makes his way back to chicago and tells his brothers , who are startled to see him alive , that he wants revenge .
he thereby supplies his brothers with the names of the 22 leaders in the lynch mob .
an ambitious district attorney ( walter abel ) prosecutes the 22 for murder .
katherine , not knowing he's alive , remains in a state of shock , but is asked to be a witness that she saw joe burning to death .
the defense claims that it can't be a charge of murder without a corpse .
the trial proves to be interesting , as the citizens in this close-knit , respectable community , lie under oath , providing alibis for each other to prove they couldn't have been at the jail .
the sheriff also lies , saying he can't identify anyone in the mob .
but proof comes by way of a newsreel cameraman who caught the whole incident on film .
as for proof of the corpse , an anonymous letter is addressed to the judge enclosed with the wedding ring katherine gave joe .
in the note , memento is misspelled , which makes katherine realize that joe is alive .
when the sentence is announced , 20 of the accused are found guilty of murder , but joe marches into the courtroom and gives a pious speech about what happened .
katherine forgives him , and this very strong film ends on a weaker note than i think it should have .
but don't blame lang for all the changes in the film , of trying to take the town off the hook by introducing this wild revenge motive .
mgm couldn't bear to have it made the way lang wanted it , that is , by having tracy die in the lynching .
instead they wanted to stop short of condemning so many small american towns where lynchings actually do occur , and they thereby meddled throughout the entire script .
to lang's credit , even if this film failed to be a masterpiece because of the interference , it still did not let the good citizens off the moral hook .
his portrayal of the attempted lynching was powerfully done and was not compromised .
you couldn't help get the feeling that the citizens didn't care that much that they almost lynched an innocent man , but cared more about protecting the reputation of their town and would do anything to keep their 22 vigilantes from going to jail , even perjuring themselves .
their reaction to seeing joe alive was satisfying only in that it meant they weren't going to be convicted .
lang by no means implies that the town has learned its lesson from this incident .
he does imply that a dark side to joe wilson has been exposed , and the innocent , jovial good-guy , seen in the beginning of the film , has been largely altered forever by this traumatic experience .
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