Judge Joe Armenio is thankful that the only chains he's in are metaphorical ones.
"They're the ones who should be in chains."—James Allen
I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932, directed by Melvyn LeRoy) is the most famous of Warner Bros.' "social problem" films, and an uncompromising movie that could only have been made in the early 1930s, when financial desperation forced the studios to neglect the sanitizing Production Code (these are usually referred to as the "pre-Code" years, which is a misnomer—the Code existed, it just wasn't enforced). I Am A Fugitive was a massive critical and popular success at the time of its release, rare for a film so relentlessly angry and downbeat; the tone of outraged injustice that the movie strikes was perfect for those most dismal days of the pre-New Deal Great Depression. The film has finally been released on DVD, as part of Warner's Controversial Classics Collection, and is also available on its own.
Facts of the Case
The film opens as James Allen (Paul Muni, The Life of Emile Zola), a decorated hero, returns from World War I. Frustrated by his clerical job and longing to "build things," he seeks out construction jobs with the goal of becoming an engineer. Failure to find work leads him to a flophouse in an unnamed Southern state, where he unwittingly becomes involved in a crime and is sentenced to ten years' hard labor on a chain gang. After enduring terrible brutalities, he manages to escape and eventually builds for himself the life he had dreamed of. I won't give away the rest of the plot, but suffice it to say that Allen is forced into another encounter with the chain gang, and all does not end well.
I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang is based on a memoir by one Robert Burns, entitled I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang; the studio agreed to remove the reference to Georgia, setting the film at some unspecified place in the American South. This placelessness seems appropriate, in a way. The film deserves its reputation as a "social problem" picture, as one of its goals was to expose the brutalities to which prisoners were subjected, but it also works on a visceral, elemental level, as a sort of dream of confinement.
Too many movies are described as "nightmarish," but this one really merits the description. In the prison sequences LeRoy focuses relentlessly on the reality of the prisoners' chains, with a series of memorable images and sounds. We see the prisoners' bound legs in close-up, being checked by a guard; hear the clank of the chains as they shuffle to work; observe the awkward, twisting maneuver by which the men lift their legs to sit at the breakfast table. When James escapes, the shrill, irritating braying of the dogs pursuing him goes on forever. The cumulative effect is enough to make even the most jaded viewer antsy and unsettled. At moments like this, I Am A Fugitive seems more like an avant-garde film than Hollywood entertainment; the only other film I can think of that captures this sense of confinement and dehumanization in such a brutal, almost tactile way is Robert Bresson's Lancelot of the Lake, with its endlessly clanking armor and shots of disembodied feet.
Howard Green and Brown Holmes's script plays with ideas of confinement, freedom, and the American Dream in interesting ways. When Allen returns from the war, he comes back to a life which seems comfortably middle-class; he's greeted by his loving mother, his minister brother, and a woman who apparently is his girlfriend. He leaves, not out of desperation, but because he feels trapped in a conventional life. As he eventually becomes a model citizen, Allen is portrayed as something of a golden boy, virtuous and successful at everything he does. In his commentary, Richard Jewell describes Allen as a sort of Horatio Alger hero, which makes his imprisonment an even more powerful refutation of the American Dream: One can work hard, be virtuous, make a success of one's life, and still wind up destroyed at the hands of an unjust system. This sort of bleak vision would become virtually extinct in American movies when the Code began to be enforced, as would the sexual frankness exhibited in the extraordinary scene in which James is visited by a prostitute on the night of his escape. This woman, played by Noel Francis, is made a refreshingly human figure; it's also clear later that James is having sex with his landlady (Glenda Farrell, Little Caesar) before they're married, something the Code would not have allowed.
I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang is not an auteur film; a glimpse at LeRoy's career reveals no discernable artistic personality. After making a number of gritty films at Warner Bros., including I Am A Fugitive and Little Caesar, LeRoy moved on to MGM, where he became known for his weepy melodramas, the most famous of which is Random Harvest. He was, however, a skilled professional, capable of capturing this story's desperate tone. Jewell suggests that producer Darryl Zanuck was a leading creative force on the film, pushing hard for a tough, uncompromising vision. Paul Muni's performance is also crucial. Critical opinion remains divided on Muni, who had a hammy, theatrical, self-consciously actorly manner that came to seem old-fashioned once subtler actors developed a more cinematic style. I'm somewhat ambivalent about him myself; I find his performance in Howard Hawks's Scarface, for example, alternately riveting and ridiculous, sometimes within the same scene. He was perfect for I Am A Fugitive, though, as I can't think of another actor who could have captured so well the movie's unique, almost hysterical urgency.
In his commentary, Jewell, a professor of American Cinema at USC, gives interesting background on the filmmakers and actors (although he's silent on the screenwriters, who have always remained fairly anonymous in critical discussions of the movie), and is adept at discussing the ways in which the film differs from Robert Burns's account. Apparently Burns was not a war hero (although he did serve) and was a bit less grounded and successful than James Allen turned out to be—the filmmakers made Allen a more virtuous figure to ratchet up the sense of injustice. Jewell also notes that the comically ridiculous moment in which a Southern defender of the chain gang system defends its rehabilitative usefulness, using Allen as an example, comes straight from Burns' account—some things are too absurd to have been made up. Jewell proves less capable at talking about what's going on in the movie, pointing out details and cinematic nuances, the sort of thing for which I find DVD commentaries most useful.
The DVD also includes a short film from 1933, a parody of I Am A Fugitive called 20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang. Four convicts break loose from their chain gang (in an amusingly direct take on the film's first escape scene), and immediately after their escape the prison is transformed into a sort of posh hotel, complete with steak dinners, ping-pong, and dancing girls, in anticipation of a visit from a government commission. Irritated by a nagging wife, one of the escapees (Jerry Bergen) decides to break back into prison. It's a funny piece, and evidence of I Am A Fugitive's immediate impact—which has endured, its images and themes influencing such films as Preston Sturges's Sullivan's Travels, Stuart Rosenberg's Cool Hand Luke, and the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
The transfer is beyond reproach. Like Fury, also in the Controversial Classics Collection, I Am A Fugitive looks and sounds about as good as a 73-year-old film can reasonably be expected to look and sound. The video on 20,000 Cheers is excellent as well, but the sound is harsh and distorted in places. The only other extra is the theatrical trailer from I Am A Fugitive, which gives away a surprisingly large amount of the plot (some things never change), even showing extended excerpts from the film's famous final scene.
I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang is a masterpiece, one of the greatest films ever to come out of Hollywood. Warner Bros. is to be commended for the care they've taken with the DVD release.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary by Film Historian Richard B. Jewell
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