Judge Daryl Loomis can knock a guy out with a milk bottle from forty feet.
This is the last time he'll run his fingers through my permanent wave.
There is the impression that old movies, because of production codes or the assumption of morality, pull their punches and leave the more sinister aspects of a story to the audience's imagination. Often, that's true, but They Made Me a Fugitive proves that it's not always the case. This forgotten British classic, directed by Alberto Cavalcanti (For Them That Trespass), is gritty, mean, and one of the most entertaining crime films I've seen in some time.
Facts of the Case
Ex-RAF pilot Clem Morgan (Trevor Howard, The Third Man) has come back from the war with a cynical attitude and no real prospects. With nowhere else to turn, he enters the London underground, where he joins up with Narcy (Griffith Jones, Hidden Homicide), short for Narcissus and the leader of a smuggling operation under the front of a mortuary. When Clem finds out they've started running cocaine, he quits, but it's not so easy. On the final job he has agreed to, Narcy frames him for the murder of a police officer and he's sentenced to life in prison. He can't rest, though, and finally manages to escape from prison, determined to exact revenge against Narcy and his criminal game.
They Made Me a Fugitive was far from what I expected. Having never heard of it and looking at the poster, it seemed like a lurid piece of exploitation, and while I anticipated entertainment, I didn't expect a whole lot. It's lurid, that's for sure, but it's also a dark and suspenseful crime drama with some of the most hilarious dialogue you're ever likely to hear.
It's classic crime action, with Clem only partially trying to clear his name. His main goal is to elude the cops long enough to stick it to Narcy and his ex-girlfriend, Cora (Rene Ray, Twilight Women), who left him for Narcy while he sat stewing behind bars. Getting help from the jilted Sally (Sally Gray, Suicide Squadron), Narcy's ex, and a police investigator (Ballard Berkeley, 1980's Little Lord Fauntleroy), he hunts down Narcy with all the determination he can muster.
They Made Me a Fugitive is an episodic story that skips the larger issues, such as his prison escape and the reason he became a crook, for the nitty-gritty of the violence, which is pretty shocking for the time and drew the ire of censors on both sides of the pond. It was released in the states as I Became a Criminal with twenty minutes shorn and, while it was released in the UK at its intended running time, the murder of three bobbies, horrific and fairly graphic violence against women, and a ridiculously dour ending made it a target for the British Board of Film Classification. That's no real surprise; even today, though it wouldn't be censored, it's still really mean.
There are many cruel and strange things that go on in They Made Me a Fugitive, and all together they make an exciting and somewhat surreal experience. Narcy's beating of Sally, punctuated by a spinning camera, and the threat of beating of another woman with a metal-studded belt show how hard the movie can be, and a bizarre episode where a zombified wife tries to get Clem to shoot her husband shows how weird it gets. The final fight, punctuated by milk bottle projectiles and culminating on the roof of the mortuary under a colossal R.I.P. sign, is the perfect cap for the insane and utterly enjoyable crime drama.
Cavalcanti's vision is realized perfectly by cinematographer Otto Heller (The Ladykillers), who employs noir-style high contrast photography to help build the tension and deliver the existential crises inherent in the story. It's not a subtle film, not in the photography, the direction, or the performances, but it certainly gets the point across. The performances are over the top, but that's part of the fun. At its best, we have Griffith Jones's Narcy, one of the more ridiculous and violent villains out there. He has more absurd dialog (like that of the Charge line) than anybody in the film and in most films, in general. The performances are about as subtle as the rest of the film, but that's what is so fun about the film.
I loved They Made Me a Fugitive and that, unfortunately, makes the Blu-ray from Kino International that much more disappointing. The 1.33:1/1080p image is poor. The transfer itself is fine, with solid clarity and decent contrast. That clarity, however, just exacerbates the problem with the print, which is absolutely terrible, especially given its relatively young age. Many silent films have more intact prints than this and, given how well the film was shot, it's utterly disappointing and genuinely detracts from the experience. The mono sound is a little better, but still not great. The heavy accents are further muddled by a fairly noisy PCM mono mix, though the music and effects are fairly good. There are no extras and, since this is the high-def release, I have no real hope for an upgraded transfer to take care of the problems, so this is the best we're going to get.
The poorly restored print aside, They Made Me a Fugitive is as much fun as I've had watching a movie in a long time. Gritty, sinister, and funny, Cavalcanti's crime entry should be much more remembered than it is. Hopefully, with Kino's release, it will get some of the credit that it deserves.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
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