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.