Having returned from fighting in World War I, James Allen doesn't want to settle into a humdrum life and decides to set off to find his fortune. He travels the length and breadth of America, working as a skilled tradesman in the construction industry. When times get tough however, he finds himself living in a shelter where an acquaintance suggests they go out for a hamburger. What the friend really has in mind is to rob the diner and Allen soon finds himself working on a chain gang with a long jail sentence. Allen manages to escape however and heads to Chicago where over several years he slowly but surely works his way up the ladder to become one of the most respected construction engineers in the city. His past catches up with him and despite protestations from civic leaders and his many friends in Chicago, he finds himself again on the chain gang. Escaping for a second time, he accepts that to survive, he must lead a life of crime. Written by
Paul Muni also set the Warner Bros. research department on a quest to procure every available book and magazine article about the penal system. Muni also met with several California prison guards, even one who had worked in a Southern chain gang. Muni fancied the idea of meeting with a guard or warden still working in Georgia, but Warner studio executives quickly rejected his suggestion. See more »
When the fugitive is getting a shave, a policeman comes in and is reading a magazine. Even though the time in the movie is 1926, the policeman is reading Liberty Magazine, date of November 14, 1931, as evidenced by the cover illustration. See more »
A true classic AND a brave indictment. Excellent!!!
Without a doubt, this is one of the finest films I have seen. Paul Muni's performance is so good, it's practically indescribable. I thought he was extremely believable as the unduly accused and convicted James Allen. This story will rip your heart out, and rightly so. The film is very well done in every way, down to the smallest detail (best example of this: the disgusting looking prison food if you can call it that). The use of newspaper headlines is extremely effective, as well as the very realistic scenes in the prison and work yard, and the whole environment in which Allen must live. The viewer can almost feel Allen's pain as the other inmate hammers away at his leg chains to give him a glimpse of hope toward freedom. However, even the scenes of Allen's life on the outside still evoke a sense of foreboding. This is a very powerful film.
I saw it as part of the Essentials series on Turner Classic Movies, and Robert Osborne said that the real-life protagonist on whom this film is based acted as a consultant. Since he was still on the run, however, he was not credited. The whole situation is so sad, and this sadness and feeling of oppression hang over the film with such realism, that sometimes it is as though you are watching Allen's life caught on videotape, instead of a motion picture. It is extremely gripping and downbeat, with a killer ending. The fact that it's a true story just adds to the pervasive feeling of doom. Way ahead of its time, and a brave picture to make in its indictment of the justice system. WOW.
TWO FAVORITE MOMENTS: 1) Allen looking directly at the policeman in the barbershop with a determined, steely glare, as if suddenly realizing that he will not be recognized, and simply defying the cop to recognize him. The barber doesn't recognize him either, even though the cop and barber have just been describing Allen. This scene, I am sure, meant to emphasize the incompetence of the police and justice system, without using any words to do so. Fantastically done. I am in awe.
2) Chain gang inmate Barney Sykes (played by supreme character actor Allen Jenkins), finally released from jail, is offered a ride from the prison staff, who are carting the coffin of a dead inmate off the grounds. Very matter-of-factly, as though he has done this before (and thus demonstrating the de-humanizing effects of prison life) Sykes hops up onto the back of the truck and sits right on the coffin. Upon seeing this out the window, the other inmates ruminate on the fact that there are only two ways to leave the chain gang `get let out, or die out.'
I will not give the ending away, but if it doesn't move you to tears, I don't know what will. Haunting.
My ONLY (minor) problem with the film is that all of the ladies in Allen's life look so similar, I could barely tell them apart!
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!!!! See it.
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