November 3, 2010

Noir-vember: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)

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.

The Warner Bros. feature, helmed by in-house director Mervyn LeRoy, takes a few liberties with the source material but generally remains faithful to Burns' story. The major changes are to make the Burns character (renamed James Allen and played by Scarface star Paul Muni) more the uber-innocent wronged man and less the average Joe. Whereas Burns served without distinction, Allen is a decorated WWI veteran; in one of the film's most poignant scenes, he walks into a pawn shop, down on his luck and wandering the country in search of meaningful work. He asks the shopkeeper if he could use a Belgian Croix de guerre only to be shown a box full of metals pawned by other soldiers. Warner Bros. also adjusts the time period. Burns bummed around the U.S. during the prosperous 1920s, more of a lost soul than a victim of circumstance. Allen is obviously a Depression-era figure. Even his dream occupation of engineer (specifically, a bridge-builder), connotes a WPA-style Depression hero.

The film's greatest asset is Paul Muni, an actor whose legacy is kept alive by this film and another he made the same year, Howard Hawks' Scarface. Muni was primarily a stage actor, having performed with his parents in the Yiddish theater as a child, and found relief from a Hollywood system he found lacking in worthwhile projects by returning to the stage between screen work. Although he only made a handful of pictures, Muni was nominated for Best Actor Academy Awards five times, included for I Am a Fugitive, and won once in 1936 for The Story of Louis Pasteur.

Although handsome, Muni has an Everyman quality. His face is equally suited to a close shave, like during his Horatio Alger scenes in Chicago, or to a haunted look and a few days' dirty growth. We see everything through Allen's eyes, a wise decision that makes the film's early prison scenes fly by. Muni's acting style is heightened but naturalistic in a way that eases occasionally clumsy and overwrought dialogue. LeRoy lays out the basics of the chain gang (tropes familiar to anyone who's seen Cool Hand Luke) with deceptive ease, but never skimping on suspense or brutality, like when Allen is punched by a guard for failing to call out when he wants to wipe the sweat off his brow.

The prisoners are whipped, beaten, harangued, fed slop and worked like mules--all of it shown with unflinching realism. But thanks to LeRoy's deft hand and Muni's compulsively watchable screen presence, the experience is never a chore. I found myself really pulling for Muni to escape, rooting for him like I've seldom rooted for one character before. There are several scenes of tremendous suspense, and a thrilling car chase in the final act that's frankly spectacular for the time period. I Am a Fugitive also features wonderful use of diagetic sound, a near-constant barrage of clanging sledgehammers, prison guards yelling, prisoners singing spirituals to pass the day, and natural ambient noise, whether it's the croaking of frogs and hum of fireflies in the South or the din of streetcars, tinkling of piano keys and laughter from Chicago's bars and brothels. For an early sound film, the work is really impressive and adds a much needed layer of atmosphere and suspense to a time when a lot of films didn't have the means or inclination to include a sophisticated soundscape in their picture.

In their seminal treatise A Panorama of American Film Noir (1941-1953), French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton champion the social realist films of the 1930s as progenitors of noir, but the thing itself. They cite Mervyn LeRoy's work in that decade, especially I Am a Fugitive, as laying the groundwork for unflinching depictions of horrific violence and brutal themes that would later come to define the world of film noir. The social problem films produced chiefly by Warner Bros. in that decade are certainly an influence on later films noir.

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.

Although the film attempts to expose a social problem, it wisely doesn't claim to have the answers. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang ends on an abrupt down note. The film's chilling closing scene, where a hunted and clearly paranoid James Allen confronts his girlfriend one last time, came about as an accident. A light fuse blew during rehearsal and director Mervyn LeRoy thought it was such a haunting and fitting ending, he decided to end the film with a slow fade out instead of the more traditional blackout. The dialogue is decidedly bleak, even for Pre-Code Hollywood, denying the audience a glimmer of happy ending:

ALLEN: No friends, no rest, no peace... Keep moving, that's all that's left for me.
SHE: Can't you tell me where you're going? Do you need any money? How do you live?
ALLEN (in a whisper and already swallowed by the night): I steal!

Muni is then swallowed up the shadows, having become exactly what he was punished for being--a thief. LeRoy and Warner Bros. made the unusual but effective decision to make the film's ending even bleaker than the memoirs. They decided to really say something about social injustice and the need for reform, and it worked. Not only was it a shrew business decision (the film was a huge box office success), it paid off creatively (winning Best Picture from the National Board of Review and was nominated for three Oscars) and socially, shedding light on abuses in the criminal justice system and turning public opinion against such excesses.


  1. Thank you for writing a post about 'I Am Fugitive'. It's such a great movie. Good job!

  2. It's noir, you fucking idiot.