I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang ★★★★½

Over the years in my business, there are two filmmakers that I've connected with through interviews that have led to some unique opportunities thereafter. One of those is James Gray, one of our best modern filmmakers, which is quite lucky and I have to pinch myself each time something comes up with him. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is one of Gray's favorite films, which his mention of how Mervyn LeRoy was able to make a more "ferocious" film—because it was Pre-Code—was what prompted my long overdue rewatch. And as I've seen more Old Hollywood films—since the first time I watched it as a teenager— it certainly does stand out as extra ferocious, particularly the lashes in the jail cell, but it's more critical of the penitentiary system than I recalled; how the system creates career criminals and the desire for States to make an example out of someone is the opposite of what the desire should be to rehabilitate. Each escape scene is magnificently filmed, underwater breathing through reeds and blowing up bridges. And there's some wise dialogue for 1932 about how the system will keep the strong Black man on the chain gang there his whole life because of the labor (though I wish the character, who wishes Paul Muni the ability to escape, had a little more agency himself but still Black prison labor being the new slave labor was a stark line for the early 30s). 

All in all, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is a real powder-keg of a movie with a magnificent performance from Muni; it lags just a bit in the sexual blackmail portion but that itself sets up one of the all time great lines to end a picture. Fading into darkness, out of frame and following you wherever you go after.  I’d forgotten that Gray had actually re-enacted that over coffee with me. This was a special watch on a Friday the 13th, as unlucky as the 13 links in Muni’s chains.

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