Fritz Lang’s Fury is based on the same small-town California news story, but this is the real deal. Instead of an innocent man threatened by a lynch mob, Try and Get Me has returning GI (never saw combat) Frank Lovejoy struggling to make ends meet for his wife and child, falling in with startling sociopath Lloyd Bridges, and them going to jail for the callous murder of a local rich boy. The lynch mob still gathers, but infinitely more frightening than Lang’s, storming the jail in an unstoppable onslaught, rather than burning it down, captured with occasionally startlingly verité camerawork by Guy Roe.
Director Cy Endfield is frequently thought of as British, but like Losey and Dassin (not French), decamped to London to escape the blacklist. His credits in America are more extensive although less distinguished – Zulu (1964) is the film for which he is best known, although Hell Drivers (1957) is easily his best, a remarkable high-point of tough, social(istical)ly-minded cinema in British cinema, or anywhere. Try and Get Me has an even more insistent moral conscience, but is also a terrific, early example of those slightly wonky, earnest, mid-century independents like Blast of Silence (1961) or Crime and Punishment USA (1959), and it has its rough edges in both conception and execution. There is an obtrusively Italian math professor, Dr Simone, who at regular intervals clearly defines the social problems being played out, staying as house guest with the improbably tony local columnist (syndicated over 200 times!) whose righteous condemnation in print of the as-yet-untried pair is responsible for whipping the town into a frenzy. Later, he feels really bad about it.
The message may be made thuddingly obvious, but its power is not dimmed. The hysteria of the mass is frightful, as is its cause (Endfield had gone to town on the corrupt power of the press in his previous feature, The Underworld Story ); but no less frightful is the pivotal murder, in a nightmarish, abandoned quarry; nor Lovejoy’s pitiless self-condemnation; nor even several surprisingly harsh domestic scenes: Lovejoy and his wife arguing almost as soon as he gets home, over giving little Jimmy 50¢ to go see the ball game; Lovejoy and his desperately, heart-breakingly optimistic double-date wallflower, in the morning hours of an all-nighter; or his wife’s trance-like visit to say her quiet piece to the journalist.
Best of all, however, is Bridges, so popping off the screen as to be almost a distraction, and rather missed in the po-facedness of the film’s second half. He is loose-limbed, dandyish, and easy with a grin, but his mood spins on a (shiny new) dime, and he is, quite evidently psychotic. Endfield and writer Joe Pagano are less interested in this quasi-cartoonish nastiness, however, than in the question posed by a street-corner preacher at the film’s start: “Why do you do the things you do?” Bridge’s Jerry is a lunatic and thus beyond rational analysis; the film is more concerned with the dead-end problems of the individual, before broadening its scope to take in the problems of society as a whole: as Simone helpfully puts it (twice!), “violence is a disease caused by moral and social breakdown, cured by reason and understanding, not emotion and hate”. The power of the message comes not so much from such sermonizing, however, as from the inexorable downfall of its protagonist through a night-time noir-ish world of gas station hold-ups, to a booze-sodden nightclub of the soul, all frightful canted angles; from the righteous passion of the film-makers’ objectives; and from the sheer unconscionable, physical power of the lynch mob.