Jeg er en Flygtning
We stay in the department for social indignation with this next movie: “I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”, the grandfather of all prison break films. I know, I could hardly have made a poorer selection of pictures for the holidays, but it is good to sober up a bit after gorging for days on end in the lap of the family (hmmm.. not sure if that expression works in English…).
If you ever wondered where all the prison break clichés come from, well this is it. Later film on the theme all refer to “I am a Fugitive…” to some extent and some even shamelessly like “Oh, Brother where art thou”. Since “I am a Fugitive…” was the first they are not clichés at all but a reminder of how much we are indebted to the old masters.
Again we are talking about a movie that takes up a social injustice, here the chain gang system, and exposes it for all the cruelty and dehumanization it entails. Warner did a whole series of social critiques in this period and this is the one I have seen that works the best. In fact this movie was instrumental in a reform of the prison system I am told, so it served its purpose. I would not have a clue if the chain gang camps were as bad as depicted here, but if they were I would say the US beat the Germans by a few years in establishing KZ camps.
I like this picture and that actually has nothing to do with the relevance or social indignation element, but because the story is fundamentally interesting and is told with the right pace and attention to detail. Paul Muni is an intense actor and when he stares you feel his eyes bore into you and sense the fight and sadness behind those eyes, yet when he smiles he is most charming but without losing that sadness. Considering the hell his character James Allen is going through, first wandering around searching for a job, being unjustly convicted to a 10 year sentence on a chain gang, brutalized, then escaping and getting back on top just to end up back in the chain gang, well that would do nasty things to a man. And Muni conveys all that bitterness and frustration.
This picture also holds and entire gallery of despicable characters.
Reverend Robert Allen (Hale Hamilton), James Allen’s brother is a pathetic self-righteous son of a bitch whom I feel an urge to punch in the face. Listening to this asshole drone on about that James belong in a boring factory job and better know his place or urging him to stay put while they work to get him out of prison makes my teeth grind. He has that lecturing movement of his hand and self-satisfied look that makes me want to kick him in the groin.
Marie Woods (Glenda Farrell), the land lady renting a room to James, but end up keeping him hostage. The bitch finds out he is a fugitive and blackmail him into marrying her so she can milk him for money and when he finally break with her she is the one turning him in. She is one cold, mean bitch.
The representatives of the Georgia penal system whether it be attorneys, judges or the staff of the prison camps, who see James Allens escape and critique as a person affront and will do their damnest to get back at him. Brutality has been seen both before and since in so many variations. What stands out here is the pettiness of it. They are brutal because they can and because it makes them feel powerful.
The sympathetic characters are almost exclusively the fellow inmates. This is actually a problem as it is hardly creditable that all these convicted criminals are actually good and jovial fellows if a bit on the tough side. If we are to believe the story the tough criminals ought to be a bit more… criminal.
In any case the South is as usual a place where you really do not want to go to prison or mess with law enforcement. Or to quote Eric Cartman: “Respect my authoritaya!”