Thursday 27 December 2012

I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

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!”          


  1. As I understand it, the script was written by a man who escaped from a chain gang, so even if these things didn't happen to him directly, they were probably things he had heard about.

    Even today prosecutors and judges will do everything in their power to prevent possibly innocent people from being released from prison. People convicted of murder or rape before there was DNA testing now petition the courts to have the samples tested to prove they are innocent of the crime. Should be pretty straightforward, right? Wrong. The prosecutors who put them away, or even the ones who now hold the job of prosecutor, use every legal method they have to block the testing from happening. Non-profit organizations fight for testing to occur. In some cases they've managed to get innocent men released after more than 20 years in jail. They have to pick and choose who to fight for, though, because it is so expensive to fight the prosecutors to get the testing done.

    1. I would not be surprised if somebody are having some problems admitting mistakes. The harder the punishment, the bigger the problem if it turns out the guy in actually innocent. For some reason there is a lot of hardliners in the prison systems and they typically look at thenselves as infallible.

  2. Nice review. I wasn't as much a fan of this film as you seem to be, but it's one of those movies that I saw when I first started going through the 1001 list, and I think I owe it another watch before I come down with a final appraisal. The precedent-setting nature of the chain gang was what I got out of it when I saw it before, but when I (eventually) see it again, I'll pay more attention to the things you mention - supporting characters, cruelty, etc. Thanks!

    1. Well, I think it was actually the story paired with Paul Muni that makes me like this movie, even the first time round. It is such a remarkable story and then it is even supposed to be true. I can certainly appreciate the need to see movies again. Quite a few of those I dismissed the first time round I found much better second time. And the other way round. One example was the Jeanne d'Arc movie, which you helped me to appreciate on my second viewing.