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In a society known for freedom and justice, how is that justice truly
measured and meted out? When an individual's very life hinges on a verdict
of innocent or guilty, is there such a thing as an objective call? Or is a
person's life subject to mere perception; a subjective evaluation of `facts'
assimilated through a filter of bloated egos and personal agenda? All
questions that many, perhaps, would prefer not to have answered, nor indeed,
even asked at all. Those who are so secure in the absolutism of our justice
system that they will willingly defer to the establishment in all matters,
and with a clear conscience. The `system,' after all, is infallible; or at
least good enough, isn't it? Good enough, that is, when it's being tested
on `someone else.' But what if that glitch in the system becomes personal?
What if `you' are the one who falls victim to a miscarriage of justice, and
your voice becomes impotent, grinding your pleas into so much pulp beneath
the wheels of a machine to which you are nothing more than another
insignificant cog? It's a situation examined in the absorbing drama, `I Am
A Fugitive From A Chain Gang,' directed by Mervyn LeRoy, and starring Paul
James Allen (Muni) returns home from WWI to find his old job in a shoe factory awaiting him. But James is a changed man, with aspirations of doing something meaningful with his life; and he wants to put the experience he received in the Army-- in the Engineering Corps-- to use. He wants to build things-- bridges, roads-- useful things. And toward that end he sets out and scours the East Coast from north to south looking for work, but jobs are scarce. Finally, having taken to `walking the ties,' the rail leads him into St. Louis, just another out-of-work bum in the eyes of society. There he meets up with a guy named Pete (Preston Foster), who tells James he knows where they can get a hamburger as a hand-out. The trusting and somewhat naive James goes along, only to find himself on the wrong end of a stick-up gone bad.
From that point, the justice system moves swiftly, and James Allen finds himself sentenced to ten years at hard labor on a chain gang. His offense? Being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong guy.
Based on the autobiographical story by Robert E. Burns, and written for the screen by Sheridan Gibney and Brown Holmes, LeRoy's riveting film is an inditement of the justice system-- specifically the brutality of the chain gangs-- but also of a society too smug and filled with self-righteousness to realize how fragile and tentative the freedoms we enjoy really are. America is the greatest country in the world-- a veritable bastion of freedom-- but those who would throw out their chests while holding up the Constitution, citing whichever amendment it is that suits their personal agenda, should be made to walk a mile in the shoes of Robert Burns/James Allen. Or for a start, be required to watch this film.
Released in 1932, this film is devoid of the melodrama common to many films of this era, and instead presents the story in very realistic terms, the meaning of which is indisputable. Like Hitchcock's unnerving 1957 film, `The Wrong Man' (also based on a true story), this film is not only disconcerting, but down-right scary when you stop to consider the implications of it. It also evokes a sense of Kafka's `The Trial' (also made into a movie in 1963 by Orson Welles), but without the abstractedness; unlike `The Trial's' Joseph K., James Allen knows exactly what's happened to him and how. What he can't understand is `Why.' Nor would any rational man, betrayed by the very society in which he placed his implicit trust, understand.
Paul Muni gives a dynamic, stirring performance as James Allen, capturing all of the confusion, exasperation, pain and anguish of his inexplicable situation, all of which you can see in his expression, in his eyes and in his body language and demeanor. You feel the darkness into which he is forced to descend, and with him you share that sense of hope fading away more with each passing day. From the tension of the moment when he first attempts to `Hang it on the limb,' to what is one of the most haunting endings ever filmed, you're right there, living it with him. It's a powerful, truly memorable performance by Muni.
The supporting cast includes Helen Vinson (Helen), Noel Francis (Linda), Allen Jenkins (Barney), Berton Churchill (Judge), Edward Ellis (Bomber Wells), David Landau (Warden), Hale Hamilton (Rev. Robert Allen), Sally Blane (Alice), Louise Carter (Allen's Mother), James Bell (Red), William Le Maire (Texan), Edward Arnold (Lawyer) and Willard Robertson (Prison Commissioner). In no way does this film exaggerate the situation it depicts; it doesn't have to. In the end, `I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang' is a wake-up call of sorts, a warning to those who take personal freedom for granted or place too much trust in a flawed system mired in bureaucracy. That a film made in 1932 can still have such an impact today says more than enough about how good it is. And once you've seen it, you'll never forget that final, haunting scene, and James Allen's final words. I rate this one 10/10.
It took some courage to make this movie, and Warner Brothers was up to it.
This is one of four such productions on the early 1930s that dealt with
crime naturalistically. But the others -- "Public Enemy," "Little Caesar,"
and "Scarface" -- although investing the protagonists with recognizably
human traits like jealousy or male bonding -- were nevertheless on the side
of the state. Okay, he might love his Mamma, but he's still a menace to
society. They all died violently in the end. Here, on the other hand, is a
story in which the protagonist is completely innocent, guilty of nothing
more than wanting to strike out on his own and accomplish something
constructive after having been through hell in the army in World War
The state -- Georgia -- convicts him in error. He was forced into participating in the crime by a stranger, although to be sure he acted guilty enough. And, what with the real James Allen acting as consultant, and the film being based on his autobiographical book, who can really tell how unwilling a participant he was?
Still, the point of the movie is that even if were guilty of robbery, the punishment imposed by the state, the conditions at the chain gang, were inhuman. Let's say many sensible people would consider it "cruel and unusual." So Allen escapes the first time, just as Cool Hand Luke did. According to the movie he rises to prominence as a self-taught engineer, although, again, the point would remain the same even if he never rose above the station of busboy. Coerced into marriage by a domineering, greedy, and self-indulgent wife (whose autobiographical novel should have been a companion piece to Allen's), he finds himself falling for a "nice girl".
But his past catches up with him. His wife betrays him out of spite. The governor of Illinois is understandably reluctant to extradite a prominent citizen who has shown how socially valuable he is, but the representatives of Georgia insist on a symbolic retribution. Return to Georgia voluntarily, says the soothing, expensive Georgian. There'll be only a token service of, say, 90 days in a cushy job, then you'll be pardoned. Alas, he's thrown into an even more horrific penal servitude and his hearing is suspended indefinitely. So he pulls Cool Hand Luke's Excape Number Two, right down to the admiring companion who jumps aboard the truck with him.
This time there is no going back, at least not according to the movie. The final shot is heartbreaking. I don't know how much of this story can be believed insofar as Allen's character is concerned. Suppose you were to write an autobiography. Might you not come out looking a little better than you actually are? Oh, that God the giftie gie' us/ to see ourselves as others see us. But I believe the chain gang sequences allright. If Allen is fibbing about that, he's still done a good job of convincing me that these conditions were real. I've worked with Corrections Officers and while they might be tough and contemptuous towards inmates, they treated them fairly. But I can believe things were quite different in 1925 in Georgia. The South has an interesting way of dealing with deviance. Southerners tend to be polite, compassionate, and helpful. They go out of their way to be friendly -- until you break an important rule. Then you forfeit any claim to humane treatment. (You want to be executed? Murder somebody in Texas or Florida.)
In the course of the 1960s, the state became as much of an enemy as the criminal himself -- maybe moreso. But this movie was released in 1932, a time at which it still took guts to depict a social system so thoroughly corrupt and sadistict.
Catch this one, if you can.
Paul Muni comes back from the war (WWI) a hero. He's offered his old job
back but declines it--he wants to make it on his own. He inadvetantly gets
involved in a stickup and is (unjustly) sent to a chain gang for 9 years.
The prisoners there are treated horribly--beaten by sadistic guards and
forced to eat wretched food. After a few months Muni has had it. He
escapes, changes his name, makes a living for himself and is very
successful. But his past begins to catch up on him...
A very early Warner Bros. social drama--and one of their best. It's pretty strong stuff. I remember originally seeing this on TV back in the 1970s and really being shocked by it. It's not graphic but what you hear is even worse then being shown it (the whippings in particular). It also shows a law system that doesn't give a damn about how they treat their prisoners. They should be treated like dirt--and are! The story moves quickly and Muni is just superb. This movie made him and you can see why. Also it has one of the most depressing endings I've ever seen in a motion picture. It hit me hard back in the 1970s and still works today. Muni's haunted face and the final line are harrowing. A true classic--a must-see.
Be warned--some non-cable TV prints cut out the final line!
Since the movie ends somewhat abruptly, I was interested in what
happened to this character in real life, so I did some research. For
those interested, read on:
The man, whose real name was Burns, lived quite awhile in New Jersey, wrote the book with this same title, even smuggled himself into Los Angeles for two weeks to help with the movie, using an assumed name and acting very skittish. He then went back to New Jersey. The state of Georgia, home of these chain gangs, tried to extradite him but New Jersey wouldn't give him up.
Regarding the film........
"Powerful" was a word describing this movie when it came out over 70 years ago, and it still holds true today. It was based on a true story and if injustice bothers you, this film will be disturbing. It certainly was to me, at least the first time I saw it.
I've seen it several times and am always mesmerized by Paul Muni's performance. Just the expressions on his face alone are fascinating. The other members of the cast are so-so, but it's Muni's movie anyway.
I have an interesting point of view for you--I'm actually in favor of
bringing back prison chain gangs/work camps (while at the same time
being in favor of legalizing all consensual "crimes"), yet I think that
I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is a simply brilliant film. I mention
my unusual view on corrections/institutional punishment to stress that
one need not completely agree with the film's surface ideology to think
that the film is a masterpiece. And that's as it should be. Films
should be appreciated or not as artworks, not adopted or rejected as
symbols of political or other views, as if films are campaigning for
office and you are wearing a button.
Still, this is a "social conscience" film and important as such. The story was adapted from the autobiography of Robert E. Burns, who ended up on a chain gang in Georgia after he stole less than $6 so that he could eat. Burns has been changed to James Allen (Paul Muni) and the chain gang was relocated in Louisiana (interestingly, Georgia officials still became incensed at Warner Brothers and issued what amounted to threats against studio executives and the artists behind this film).
The film begins with James on a ship, in the military, on his way home from World War I. He returns as a war hero, decorated with a medal. Prior to joining the military, he had been working at a factory in his New Jersey hometown--a job he doesn't at all look forward to resuming. But when he arrives home, he discovers that his Reverend brother and his mother are expecting him to go back to the factory and not make waves. He obliges at first, but he really wants to become an engineer. Exasperated, he leaves home again, looking for work. Times are tough (remember that I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang was made during the Great Depression in the U.S.) and James quickly moves from state to state trying to find and retain work.
Things do not go so well. James ends up traveling along rail lines and staying in homeless shelters. At one, he hooks up with a man who says that he can mooch a couple of hamburgers for them from the owner of a diner. The mooching works, but the man suddenly pulls out a gun and initiates an armed robbery. James is forced into participating and gets caught, bringing him to prison. The first section of the film focuses on existence in the chain gang. Later, as one could surmise from the title, James becomes a fugitive, and the story becomes entrancingly complex as he tries to begin a new life. But difficulties keep arising.
As he often did, director Mervyn LeRoy achieves a style that seems remarkably modern. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is extremely serious, but never approaches melodrama. Instead, it has a wonderfully gritty atmosphere that tends to be underplayed instead--there are similarities to more recent films that it probably influenced such as Don Siegel's Escape from Alcatraz (1979) and Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law (1986), both excellent in their own right.
The plot is a bit sprawling in terms of the number of events, the number of years and the number of geographic locations covered, yet the screenplay, by Howard J. Green, Brown Holmes and Sheridan Gibney, is extremely tight and logical. Nothing is superfluous. The pacing is always right on target. LeRoy knows exactly when to dwell on a scene versus when to let months fly by with changing calendar pages. The cinematography is also very attractive. LeRoy includes a lot of subtly clever artistic touches such as symbolic continuity in his edits--for example, from a judge's gavel to a swinging sledgehammer on the chain gang.
Muni is simply incredible. He's a perfect fit for the character. His performance makes the film extremely believable, even when the character makes some ill-advised choices. He seems as skilled at action as he is at drama (there are a few action sequences here in the modern sense of that genre term). I haven't seen many of Muni's films yet, but after seeing this one, I'm anxious to check them out. The rest of the cast is fine, but Muni receives 90-something percent of the screen time.
In addition to the "indictment" of the chain gang system, LeRoy and his writers make the film a tragic parable of freedom versus regimentation. James is a freethinking individualist, almost in an Ayn Rand sense, who is constantly trapped in various conformist systems. The military is the first symbol of this, and so is the factory that James dreads going back to. His brother is a symbol of conservative systematization via religion. And of course, the chain gang is the most negative system in which James becomes entrapped. When James is the freest--when he's wandering from state to state--he's also the most disadvantaged in terms of societal norms. His eventual vocation in the film can be seen as a gradual climb towards existential authenticity, and his work is symbolic--he's not just literally building bridges, roads and such. Ironically, he was engaged in the same kind of work on the chain gang, and ultimately, James is not able to achieve the freedom/authenticity that he desires. It's as if the film is making the argument that extreme uniqueness entails marginalization as a fringe element in a way that's often actively negative. Of course, there are many other interpretations possible, but it's difficult to deny some of these messages.
But, however analytical you want to get, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is a must-see for any cinephile. The film is enjoyable on many different levels, and is far ahead of its time.
I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG (Warner Brothers, 1932), expertly
directed by Mervyn LeRoy, is one of those rare movies released during
the early 1930s to really stand the test of time. Although not the very
first film to deal with prison injustice and harsh conditions, this is
probably the best of its kind. Based on the story by Robert Burns, a
war veteran who twice escaped from a chain gang in Georgia, it seems
likely that Warner Brothers would be the only movie studio willing to
take risks dealing with a social protest story, but here it is. And
while actors like Spencer Tracy or James Cagney might have taken up
such a challenge for the role, playing it to conviction, as fate would
have it, Paul Muni has turned out to be the best and only choice.
The photoplay focuses on a World War Army veteran named James Allen (Paul Muni), who served his country, earning his medals and now respect of his small community. Regardless of being offered back his old job, he decides to find himself by drifting from state to state, job to job, until he finds something to his liking. Along the way, Jim innocently becomes involved in a robbery by a guy named Pete (Preston Foster). A shoot out occurs by the police, killing Pete and arresting Jim. Because the money was found on his person, the judge (Berton Churchill) sentences Jim to ten years of hard labor in a chain gang prison camp. Due to harsh conditions in a living hell, Jim makes a successful escape, becoming a model citizen over the years rising to the top of his profession in a construction firm, only to be betrayed by his gold-digging wife, Marie (Glenda Farrell) for wanting a divorce so he could marry Helen (Helen Vinson), a socialite. Because of his expose to the media, Jim finds he'll never be given his promised freedom after serving 90 days. He makes his second daring escape into the new world now hit by the Great Depression. In spite of his new found freedom, he finds he'll always be chained for life as a wanted fugitive.
Not exactly a family oriented movie, "I Am a Fugitive" is a dark and very realistic drama told in documentary style with a touch of "film noir." It includes violence, though mostly taken place off screen, such as the flogging of the convicts who groan out their pain. Unlike other chain gang movies, this one doesn't feature punished convicts being placed in sweat boxes for long periods of time. While Paul Muni would achieve success in later years for his biographical dramas, winning an Academy Award as Best Actor for "The Story of Louis Pasteur" (Warners, 1936), his role as the doomed Jim Allen, victim of circumstance, is obviously his best and most remembered performance. What makes Muni so different from the other screen actors is that Muni doesn't just play a character, he BECOMES that character.
Full of memorable scenes too numerous to mention, the one that stands out is the scene where Jim, after being brought back to the chain gang on a promise for parole and release within a year, is awaken from his bed by one of the guards to be told that his appeal has been denied and that he will have to serve out his original ten-year sentence. Hearing this, Jim, with unshaved face and looking fairly dirty, looks straight into the camera with tears slowly flowing through his eyes with the expression of disgust and betrayal, making fists with his hands before resting down his head on the pillow. As for the prison escapes, they are well staged, with the second escape more exciting than the first.
Taking support in this hard-hitting drama are Louise Carter (Mrs. Allen); Sally Blane (Alice); Allen Jenkins (Barney, a fellow convict); Edward Ellis (Bomber Wells, Jim's cell-mate); David Landau (First Warden); Edward McNamara (Second Warden); Noel Francis (Linda, the lady of the evening who makes Jim's night's lodging "comfortable") and James Bell as the ill-fated convict who suffers from stomach pains. When the movie played on local television back in the 1960s and 70s, it was presented under a shorter title, "I Am a Fugitive," but when distributed to video cassette in the 1980s, its complete title was restored. Other than Paul Muni's Academy Award nomination as Best Actor for his performance as Jim Allen, the movie was honored the Best Picture award, losing "Cavalcade" (Fox, 1933).
After all these years, "I Am a Fugitive" remains a fast-pace man-on-the-run drama, which holds interest throughout its 93 minutes of screen time, and not so easily to forget once it is all over. With the chain gang system being virtually a thing of the past (younger viewers might ask, "What is a chain gang?"), the movie is a curious look back as to how prison conditions were like in the early part of the twentieth century, and how the judicial system has changed since then. "I Am a Fugitive" available on both VHS and DVD formats, has become a frequent revival on Turner Classic Movies. (****)
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.
Being a man who has a very unhealthy penchant for any film that deals
with incarceration, it is with great elation that I can proudly
proclaim this to be one of the greatest films of the genre. I had to
finally give way and import the film on Region 1 to see what I was
missing, boy it was joyous to see how this film has influenced some of
my favourite film's of all time.
This is one tough movie, it pulls no punches and the only surprise is that it was made in 1932, that the film is a grizzled masterpiece is down to the astute direction of Mervyn LeRoy and a quite brilliant performance from Paul Muni in the lead role of James Allen. Based on the real life writings of Robert Elliot Burns, the film is a harsh kick in the guts about the brutal penal system that existed when most of us were mere glints in our Father's eyes. It is part of a Warner Brothers controversial classic's box set that is available on Region 1, and its place on any controversial classic list is worthy.
The film had major impact on reviews of the penal system, it caused uproar in Georgia (the film never mentions Georgia, but they knew it was about them), law suits followed and Robert Elliot Burns himself was constantly pursued by the authorities despite the state being privy to the actual facts of his case. I wont be boorish with the details as it is well documented across the net and those who haven't seen the film really need to address that issue! I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang strips it down to a primal story that begs a viewing from anyone interested in the genre-or actually for those interested in brilliant cinema from a golden era. 10/10
"I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" is possibly the finest film of the
early sound era. Considering how filmmakers weren't adapt yet to the
new medium, its impressive how this film seems to be devoid of much of
the awkwardness that usually plagues films from this time. There isn't
too much music, but it doesn't slow down the pace or distract the
viewer. Also, Mervyn LeRoy's workman direction is quite adequate.
Between "Little Caesar" and this, he seemed to become much more
comfortable with the new sound medium.
While some of the supporting acting is a bit campy (I realize how many modern viewers don't enjoy pre-method acting), Paul Muni delivers a subdued and absolutely powerhouse performance. Its a shame he never became a bigger star, because as far as I'm concerned he's just as fine as Clark Gable or Gary Cooper. Also, the social message of this film was far ahead of its time in decrying what was a government institution. This was a very progressive film. In addition to the historical significance, the film is just as powerful as when it was initially released. In particular, the ending is a complete knockout (one of the finest closing lines ever for a film). Thankfully, this was made before the Hayes Code, so it includes some interesting (and realistic) depictions of sex. This deserves a ten the whole way, a rating I don't often hand out. (10/10)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I have just finished watching this film for the first time and I am not
ashamed to admit I almost cried. What an understated epic this is, with
full credit to the cast - the piece is carried by Muni as James
James. A war hero looking to re-adjust,he takes a hit for a blundered
robbery, suffering injustice at a Southern chain gang, breaking free,
his mark as a model citizen and true American, only to suffer the ultimate
humiliation. This exposes not only the system, but also the perfidity of
fellow human beings. I have read the other reviews here and have absolute
respect for them all. To my mind, the thread of simmering injustice,
finally comes to fruition through blantant reluctance,ignorance and fear
within a twisted federal administration, leaves the viewer feeling "this
must never happen again - in any modern format". For this reason, the
works, as I defy anyone to claim it does not promote a reaction.
The final scene does have a 'film-noir' quality about it - I gather the lighting engineer faded the set in error, but the parting shot was kept in regardless - and as the truly dark side envelopes James Allen and the credits roll, you are left gasping "Christ! what will happen to him now?"
The American film industry - the worlds greatest (true praise from an Englishman).
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