I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

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

This bruising, brutal slab of social realism was made during that brief period when Hollywood had the opportunity, and the inclination, to take aim at the nation’s ills. In 1932-3, films like Heroes for Sale, Wild Boys of the Road, The Mayor of Hell and Gold Diggers of 1933 (ostensibly a throwaway musical) held a mirror up to Depression-era America, in all its cruelty, drudgery and despair. Packed with righteous rage, these explosive movies went off like dynamite, helping to set the national agenda and changing laws and lives. Then the Hays Code came in, and the mainstream simply wouldn’t touch progressive pictures (with the very rare exception, like Ford and Zanuck’s The Grapes of Wrath in 1940).

Paul Muni is James Allen, a returning soldier who wants something more than a dead-end factory job, but in his quest to become somebody finds only poverty, hunger and wrongful arrest. Sentenced to 10 years on a chain gang, he is brutalised and beaten down, but never beaten. Then, one day, he makes a run for it. The opening 10 is somewhat corny and clunky, and tonally at odds with what follows, but in this context it kind of works: in the eyes of the writers, Muni’s perma-winking mummy’s boy has to be that way for us to root for him; that’s no longer true – if it ever was – but it does make his dehumanisation even more bracing.

The chain gang footage is simply like nothing before or since: figures in striped suits toiling in the boiling sun, treated as less than human by sadistic authority figures. The anti-establishment message, showing the system as corrupt, vindictive and peopled by sociopaths, dispenses with the usual benevolent prison wardens or governors familiar from The Big House and 20,000 Years in Sing Sing. Here, the only people with an ounce of decency are the crooks: jug-eared Allen Jenkins – who leaves the bunk house for the last time striking a match on a coffin – Everett Brown as a hulking black sledgehammer-swinger who whacks Muni’s shackles and his ankles, and Edward Ellis (who played The Thin Man), exceptional as an ageing con who shows Muni the ropes.

Though the film seems to ask us to swallow a lot, its more incredible plot points are actually torn from real life, the whole thing based upon Robert E. Burns’ best-selling memoir, I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang. And though it has a handful of obvious flaws, including a smidgen of the obligatory comic relief (thankfully kept to a minimum) and Helen Vinson’s weak, wooden turn as the love of Allen’s life, it remains one of the key movies of its era, with a stunning performance from the stocky, punchy Muni – a proto-John Garfield fresh from Yiddish theatre, via Scarface – virtuosic photography from LeRoy and Sol Polito that perfectly evokes the milieu, and among the all-time great, unresolved endings.

Plus Glenda Farrell as a blackmailing nymphomaniac. Yowzer.

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