Noir-vember is a month-long film challenge devised by oldfilmsflicker, who in addition to running one of the best film Tumblrs around, also blogs here. The premise is simple but daunting: watch every one of IMDb's Top-Rated Film Noir Titles, fifty in all. The films I've already covered on the list are #12 White Heat and #11 The Killing, which you can read about here and here.
First things first: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (#17 on the IMDb list) is not a film noir. Not even close. It is a very good film, an exemplar of the 1930s social problem film, a ripped-from-the-headlines expose of abuses in the United States penal system--but not a film noir.
Based on the memoir of Robert Elliott Burns called I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang, the story recounts the true tale of Burns, a WWI veteran who was coerced into armed robbery by two men he barely knew. Burns was sentenced to 6 to 10 years hard labor in a chain gang for attempting to steal a little over five dollars from a lunch cart. Burns managed to escape from the gang to Chicago where he became a prominent businessman and a pillar of the community until he was exposed by his landlady who blackmailed him into marriage lest she divulge his secret. The governor refused to turn him over to Georgian police but Burns surprised everyone by volunteering to return to serve his prison time on the following conditions: 1) he would serve a reduced sentence of 90 days, 2) it wouldn't be on the chain gang, 2) he would pay the state restitution for legal costs, 4) and after 90 days he would be pardoned and never bothered again. Of course, Georgia reneged on that verbal agreement and jailed Burns for the remainder of his sentence. He escaped--again. He published his memoir while still a fugitive and did not gain his freedom until after the release of the film.
I Am a Fugitive has been credited as the first in this cycle of film (for it cannot rightly be called a full-fledged genre) that actually precipitated social change. Warners had a reputation for the down-and-out forgotten man who either turned criminal (The Public Enemy, White Heat) or was falsely hunted as one (I Am a Fugitive) and a commitment to portraying lower and working class existences on the screen. As USC film professor Richard Jewell noted on his audio commentary on the DVD, in the 1930s even Warners' musicals were realistic compared to other studios, especially MGM's "dream factory." Warner Bros. was naturally the perfect studio to tell Robert Elliott Burns' true story of wrongful imprisonment and excessive punishment. In fact at the time of the film's release, Burns was still a fugitive. He was arrested shortly after the release of the film but the governor of his home state of New Jersey refused to extradite him to Georgia to return to the chain gang. Burns was now unimpeachable partly due to the popularity of the film. In 1937, five years after I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, chain gangs were abolished.** However, not everyone was overjoyed with Warners' crusading efforts. The studio was sued by two Georgian prison wardens for alleged slander, even though they had cut the name of the state in Burns' book from their film title and never referred to geography by name in the movie.
**Although they have never been entirely phased out as a form of punishment and gained a resurgence as late as the 1990s.