I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) Poster

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"How Do You Live?"
jhclues23 December 2001
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 Muni.

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.
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Still powerful
preppy-330 July 2004
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!
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More Facts For Fans Of This Film
ccthemovieman-17 November 2005
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.
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Gutsy, and hard to forget
Robert J. Maxwell14 March 2003
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 I.

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.
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Masterpiece that keeps influencing as much as it enthrals.
Spikeopath4 March 2008
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
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A true classic AND a brave indictment. Excellent!!!
Night Must Fall1 August 2002
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!

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Chained for Life
lugonian23 November 2001
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. (****)
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Brilliant and ahead of its time
Brandt Sponseller9 July 2005
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.
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Oh, Man, What a Movie
Tenkun21 May 2007
Warning: Spoilers
You could watch "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" a thousand times and still be seized with suspense and anxiety during both of James Allen's escape attempts. The story of a man wronged by injustice, a man who gave his youth for his country, his past to his future, and his mind over to civil engineering. Forced at gunpoint to hold up a diner, he is summarily sentenced to 10 years hard labor- on the chain gang. If you have a soul, this movie will move you. You would have to be heartless not to get angry, whether during the scene where the warden causes the death of a sick inmate, when Allen is betrayed for the first and second times by the prison board, when he's betrayed by his loveless wife. It's a movie that draws out involuntary emotions. Strong emotions.

You might just find yourself yelling at the screen, "It's not fair!" I noticed that Paul Muni, toward the beginning, is to a T the prototype of James Dean and Marlon Brando. He epitomizes the frustration of youth as he tells his mother and brother he doesn't want a factory job anymore. He wants to build. He descends into abysmal poverty. He gets caught and thrown on the chain gang. He slaves away before a black prisoner helps him escape. See how progressive this movie is? The guards are white; the saintly inmates are black. He builds a new life for himself from scratch, on only his wits and skill. He's caught again just as he's found himself a woman he really loves. Allen is a tragic figure- his tragic flaw is only his willingness to believe in the American criminal justice system.

The title says it all. It's not "I WAS a Fugitive..." because he never gets away or is permanently caught. Like Al Roberts in "Detour," he flees forever. Parts of the movie are almost nihilistic, as he gets stuck on the chain gang for guys who were too tough for the chain gang. Prisoners cry, "I don't care whether I live or die! What are you gonna do, kill me?" The chain gang breaks a man. It destroys his spirit until he's just a hollow shell that works until it can no longer and then gives out, dies. All with stark B&W cinematography to match the depletion of humanity, the draining of life from the individual and from the nation.

This, along with "Scarface," is Muni's tour de force. He is eternally sympathetic, and we are eternally in chains with him. Stone walls may not a prison make, but when you're on the chain gang long enough, you clearly become stuck in an imprisoned mind frame. As everyone has commented, the ending is one of the greatest of all film endings. This surprising vision of Allen, more a rat than a man, leaping out of the darkness after his final heroic escape, obviously no longer a hero. In the sparse light we get, we see his emaciated and hardened face. He shakes his head when this woman, whose only thought is for him, asks if he'll need money or if he'll come see her. He backs out of the scene, clearly afraid that somebody's traced him there and will have him back on the chain gang in an instant, always running running running, and then she calls out to him like any normal lover would, "How do you live?" But his answer is not that of a lover. His answer is not that of a man. Nor of an innocent man, nor of a hero. We don't know what he is.

"I steal," he hisses in a ghoulish voice whose echoes linger in our ears long after the scene fades and out and THE END rolls with the Warner Bros. logo. "I steal," and we are forever haunted, cursed with this vision of what an innocent man can become. A fugitive. I shiver every time I think of it.
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Did this make me angry? You bet........
freemanist31 August 2000
Warning: 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 Allen/Allen 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, making 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, which 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 film 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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one of Warners' best problem pictures
didi-58 May 2004
Mervyn LeRoy's chain gang movie from 1932 starring Paul Muni ruffled feathers on its initial appearance, and still packs a considerable punch when viewed today.

James Allen is implicated in a robbery and is sentenced to hard labour - seeking justice and the ability to clear his name he escapes from the brutality of the prison regime and sets up a new life (as Allen James, not that much of a name change really). The new Allen is a man of influence and importance, who does good for his community. The State still wants revenge though and when he is betrayed, his life really goes pear-shaped.

A sharp and perceptive script is the greatest strength of this drama, plus Paul Muni's exceptional performance in the lead during the different situations faced by his character. Glenda Farrell also makes an impression, but it is probably the last sequence you'll remember the longest, as a desperate Muni fades into the shadows and a lifetime on the edge of society. A heavy verdict indeed on American justice of the 1930s.
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They Really Made Him A Criminal
bkoganbing11 June 2007
Paul Muni's performance in Scarface led him to a long term contract with Warner Brothers and his first film with them was another classic. Unlike Scarface where Muni becomes a gangland boss, he's led almost by accident into a life of crime.

Restless since his service in the World War, Muni leaves his factory job to see the world. On the bum, he gets accidentally drawn into a holdup of a greasy spoon diner by another tramp, Preston Foster. Foster is killed and Muni is left with the rap for a grand total of about $5.00 and change. Today that would be about $35.00 to $40.00 all told.

No first offender status in this state and no one to speak earnestly for him, he gets a 10 year stretch for that holdup. Here's where the themes of I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang come into play. The brutal and callous treatment of the prisoners had never been shown so graphically on the screen before, although at RKO they were doing a film with the same themes in Hell's Highway at the same time.

Muni got an Oscar nomination for playing James Allen in this film, but lost to Charles Laughton for The Private Lives of Henry VIII. Still he gives a riveting performance as a man truly a victim of forces he cannot comprehend.

Overshadowed by Muni and sometimes overlooked unfortunately is Glenda Farrell. She plays a trampy dame with a heart of pure brass who latches on to Muni who marries her when she discovers he's a fugitive, then turns him in when he tries to throw her out. Her part as Muni's unfaithful wife may just have been her career role.

Even though the film is black and white, the fashions are old, prison themes whether it's this one, Brubaker, or The Shawshank Redemption usually have a lot of the same themes and are eternal. This one is a deserved classic and should never be missed when televised.
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A Socially Critical Masterpiece
ilvatz1 February 2012
Warning: Spoilers
I found this movie to be a stunning journey into the life of the wrongly convicted. The main characters portrayal of the emotions of someone who has done nothing wrong and must suffer the short end of a corrupt system is breathtaking. I find it amazing that this movie comes from the era that it did. It was very socially critical, aware and sought to bring to the publics attention the very things which they were trying to ignore. The camera work in this movie alone makes it worth watching. The camera adds a very cool effect in the action scenes (i.e. the car chase at the end) and a very somber effect in the scene of hopelessness. I found the use of silence in this film to be quite amazing as well. The scene where the main character is getting whipped and the music drops out and all you can hear is the sound of the whip striking and the painful breaths of the wrongly accused adds a stunning effect and truly heightens the feeling of cruelty and hopelessness that the audience feels. The plot of the movie was very well done and takes you on an incredible journey from hope, to despair, from rags to riches and back again. I find it very interesting that the characters motivation to be truly great and not just settle back into the normalcy of his life before he fought in the war was what, by an unfortunate turn of events led him to the very bottom of the social ladder. I find that this is a very accurate representation of how in American life, even to this day, trying to be more than people expect of you and break away from the norm to forge your own path is looked down upon and often punished despite the 'American Dream' of individuality and independence. The scene that I found the most moving in this film was the very last scene where the main characters fades into the darkness and all you can hear is him exclaiming 'I steal.' The irony that an honest man who up until then had never committed a dishonest act and was driven by the very system which was supposed to correct improper behavior to committing crimes in order to survive was truly emotionally cutting. I think that this film, besides being an amazing tale of woe and fortune was very important in its time for exposing the corruption of the chain gang system.
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I'm hungry. What would you say to a hamburger?
yilmazomar3 October 2012
Warning: Spoilers
"Boy. I'd take Mr. Hamburger by the hand and say, "Pal, I haven't seen you for a long, long time." and with that line begins one of the darkest most refreshing moments in cinema history. This film is like a film that I haven't seen in a long long time, it's not a happy story or even a sad story, it's portrayed and shot in such a way that it's a story dipped in grit, reality, dirt and dust, a film where our hero loses at the game of life, he loses his love, his passion, his profession, his peace of mind and better yet we don't see how that turns out for him. The films portrayal of law and order is surprising especially for its time, I was truly frightened by the faces of the judges and sound of the chains and the hounds chasing our fugitive, about the fragility of any one mans peace in society, the viciousness and perhaps even the lasciviousness of certain women, the film oh how wonderfully it topples the notion of our old boy coming back home from the war, finding love and finding a job and making pa and pa proud and happy. Paul Muni's acting is superb as well especially his awkwardness at the train station when he's greeted by family and friends and his face of anarchy at the dinner table later that night and let us not forget the look of misery and finally utter deep desperation at the end all of which he acts out so skillfully. The ending and its final lines pack a wallop and is one of the best endings I've ever seen.
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A Masterpiece of Social Injustice!!!
zardoz-137 February 2010
Warning: Spoilers
In "Little Caesar" director Mervyn LeRoy's riveting pre-Code prison melodrama "I Am A Fugitive from A Chain Gang," protagonist James Allen's appetite for a hamburger lands him in the worst place on earth—a southern chain gang—because his hunger prompted him to participate as an accomplice in the robbery of a short-order restaurant that yielded only five dollars! Scenarists Sheridan Gibney, Howard J. Green and Brown Holmes derived their sizzling screenplay from Robert E. Burns' autobiographical account of life on a Georgia Prison chain gang. Indeed, the author remained at large while Warner Brothers Studios produced this landmark film about social injustice that gave Georgia a black eye. Actually, the title of the Burns autobiography carried the name of the state where he served time.

Paul Muni was ideally cast as Robert Burns, and he makes a highly sympathetic hero who pays the price for his split-second lack of poor judgment that sent him to jail. Allen was one of the thousands of troops that survived the First World War to return home a changed man. He tells his priest and his family that he does not want to go back to his old factory job, even after his boss meets him at the railroad station and gives him his job back. Instead, Allen wants to go into construction, but the market for construction workers is extremely tight and our hero finds himself moving from one job to another until he meets a shady character in a flophouse. "I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang" qualified as one of the earliest films to expose the legitimacy of the United States legal system. Indeed, as TIME magazine reported in 1932, Georgia chain gang warden J. Harold Hardy sued Warner Brothers Pictures Inc. and Vitaphone Corporation for $1,000,000 each for "vicious, untrue and false attacks" in movie. In the film, Burns breaks out of prison and heads north to Chicago. Five years later he has made quite a name for himself as a respectable business man in a bridge-building firm. Bridge-building itself serves as a metaphor in this instance.

Things sour when a dame, Marie Woods (Glenda Farrell of "Gold Diggers of 1935"), discovers his closely guarded secret. Marie blackmails him into marriage, but he falls in love with another woman (Helen Vinson of "They Call It Sin") and begs for a divorce. Ultimately, he is shipped back to Georgia. During his first stint on the chain gang, Allen learns to keep his trap shut when he gets whipped for calling the chain gang warden a skunk for wanting whip a man who is nearly dead from exhaustion. When Allen brings up the idea of escape, the convicts tell him the slang phrase for it is "hanging it on the wire." They explain that anybody who breaks out has to contend with three things: first, the chains, second, the bloodhounds, and third, guards who would rather bring you back dead rather than alive. Later, he entreats the African-American inmate to smash his ankle chains to loosen them so he can eventually slip out of them. Among many memorable scenes is the barbershop scene. While the barber is shaving Allen, a policeman enters the shop and describes James Allen to the barber. Allen demands a hot towel to cover his face. As he is leaving the shop later and trying to hide his face from the cop, the barber inquires if the shave were close enough. "Plenty," replies Allen and vanishes into the evening. The ending is a corker.

"I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang" is one of the greatest social problem movies to ever illuminate the silver screen. The film received nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor for Muni, and best sound. According to All Movie, "the publication of Burns' book led to the abolishment of that system and an erasure of Burns' sentence." A film not to be missed. The Burns autobiography was later remade in 1987 as an HBO telefeature: "The Man Who Broke A 1000 Chains" with Val Kilmer playing Burns.
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Heady, Fast, Social Justice without the Justice--Muni is brilliant
secondtake16 September 2009
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

Heady, Fast, Social Justice without the Justice--Muni is brilliant

Filmed a year after Howard Hawks's Scarface (also released 1932), I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang shows the other half of Paul Muni's brilliance. There is no question that both films are masterpieces of their type, with Mervyn LeRoy pulling together a lot of periods and kinds of milieu into a coherent and fast narrative for the later one. But I think both films owe their critical success to Muni's presence on screen, a true Brando or Gable kind of figure with a short list of films to show for his abilities. Watch these both. If Scarface is more dazzling (almost to the point of being dazzling for its own sake), I Am a Fugitive is more moving, and Muni makes us really feel for his situation, or series of situations, as the film proceeds.

The story is based on an autobiographical book written by Robert E. Burns, a man in prison at the time of filming, and one sign of the success of LeRoy and Muni combined is that Burns managed to be released in the film's wake. And to some extent that was the goal of the film--not just the fate of Burns, but the public awareness of the cruelty of parts of the American justice system. There are no secrets about the agenda--it is announced in large type at the start of the movie--but it worked. And works to this day. Of course, O Brother Where Art Thou (2000) owes a lot to this movie, but the humor in the original is incidental, or meant to give life to the characters, not as a way of making the film especially funny. The drumbeat of horrors makes laughing very temporary, and the social realism strikes me, 70 years later, as more or less real.

Jaded (and brilliant) critics like Pauline Kael might refer to this kind of socially concerned film as "naive," but the movie strikes me as necessarily simple rather than blind or stupid in any sense. And it isn't that watching it is simple--there is so much going on, a lot of characters (including as series of women who come and go with surprising rapidity). It's more that the point is simple--chain gangs are cruel. And not unusual, back then. On the level of film-making, the film is sophisticated, rising above its message if necessary.

There is one last element worth mentioning, and that has to do with it being made two years before the Hays code got modified and enforced to its famous repressive heights. This allowed the key, amazing, beautiful ending to survive into the theaters. If you haven't seen it I can say no more, but it's the kind of ending that the censors would have abolished, along with some of the rest of the movie, for its frank violence, its suggestion of sexual indecency, etc. So for another great example of "pre-code" brilliance, look here. A masterpiece for its time, and for ours.
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" I'm not a fugitive from the Law, but from injustice "
thinker16911 April 2009
America has always prided itself on its just laws and it's sense of fairness. However, there are some segments of the country where law and justice, like money, have failed to trickle down into the general public. In some states, the legal system is as harsh and unforgiving as the crime itself. As a consequence, many heartless authorities believe the more brutal a punishment, the more justice is dispense. Indeed, the Southern states, established so sever a retribution on its criminals they became the focus of this accusatory film. The story is taken from the actual exploits of Robert Burns (Paul Muni) who finds himself convicted of the theft of $5.50 and sentenced to ten years Hard Labor. It's bad enough to be sent to a prison, but he's also sentenced to dehumanizing, torturous treatment. The bestial and barbaric practices drive him to dare an escape. Using ingenuity and daring, he makes for Chicago where he does well and soon climbs the ladder of success. Years later, he is discovered and threatened with a return. The Governor and many citizens sponsor his safety. However, using an old legal trick, the prison authorities convince Burns to return with a promise of release in a few months. Trusting them he voluntarily returns. However Burns learns he is not to be released as promised. The stripes, the Ball and Chain await him and upon learning of the deception, plots again to escape but the guards are waiting for him to try. A magnificent Black and White film and one which has established itself as a true Classic ****.
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Live in Georgia for a while
kenhe16 June 2005
Warning: Spoilers
As a native Georgian, I can relate to the horror that the Prisoner From a Chain Gang experiences. Although I left Atlanta, Georgia around thirty years ago, I can still recall the wanton cruelty and excessive violence towards both poor whites, middle class whites, and Negroes by the Georgia State Police, the Atlanta Police Department, and the Marietta Police. I can only imagine, by way of this horrifying film, just how awful things were back in the Thirty's, inside the Talmadge dominated Georgia prisons, with prison guards whipping and beating, and even killing prisoners,

for little or no reason. It is too bad that so many Americans are insulated from the horror of the American penal system that they no longer understand just how destructive any prison sentence can be for their children and friends, or their friends children.
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Social Realism at Its Best
gbheron14 July 2003
James Allen returns from WWI a changed man. He's not physically or psychologically injured, quite the opposite, he's inspired by his experience with the Army engineers. James feels he has found his calling. Unfortunately his family expects him to reenter civilian life as he left it, at a menial clerk's job at the local factory. James gives it a try, but it's now unbearable. So he abandons his disapproving family, girlfriend, and employer, and sets off for the South to break into the construction trades. But things don't work out as he hoped, there is no steady work, and soon he befriends the wrong person and ends up railroaded for a crime he didn't commit. He's given a long sentence on a chain gang.

Released in the autumn of 1932, I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang exposes the inhumanity of the chain gang system. What now seems like a practice from the Dark Ages, chain gangs were still in common use in the early 1930s, especially in the South. The degradations of the system are given a human face in this excellent film.

The movie has many plot twists that would seem completely at home in a contemporary noir film. Nominated for both best picture and best actor (Paul Muni in his portrayal of James Allen), the movie has aged well. It goes to show you that back in the 1930s some movies were not pulling their punches.
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"How do you live?"
Gavin O.24 September 2016
Warning: Spoilers
I'm a sucker for prison movies - "Shawshank Redemption" would most likely rank #1 on my list of all-time favorite films, and "Down By Law" wouldn't be too far behind it. Now, "I Am A Fugitive" is on that list too.

Paul Muni really carries this movie. While the other actors in this movie are by no means bad, Muni - playing the wrongly imprisoned James Allen - has the best performance of any of them. His chilling line in the ending - "I steal!" - is one that I'll remember for years to come.

Another thing that stood out in "Fugitive" was it's use of sound - notably in the first escape scene. Allen is hiding underwater to try and lose the guards (and their dogs). Above water, you hear the chaos of the dogs barking, but underwater... dead silence. It adds a load of suspense to the scene and (to me) seems very artistic for it being made so long ago; in fact, despite the film's age, it still holds up very well today. Unlike many old movies, there are few poorly-done special effects or outdated techniques to distract from the movie in the ending, but even that looked better than most movies from that time period that I've seen.

All in all, if you're a fan of prison movies or just classic cinema, this is definitely a film you need to see - and the fact that it was based on a true story should be all the more reason to watch it.
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CriticalViewing15 May 2016
The use of sound is greatly used in this film, off-screen sound is impactful, and all notable sound in this film is symbolic or significant, for either audience feeling or for meaning. These sounds include bells, sounds of metal clanking, belts, etc. And the use of close-ups are also masterfully used. These close-ups are indicative of character feeling at crucial moments, keeping the viewer emotionally connected. And the use of music, adding to the overall feeling of each frame. This film was powerful enough to prompt mass social outrage, from feelings of sadness, disgust, and true anger...the emotive impact on social views and action in 1932 was enough to push legislation, and it isn't hard to see why. LeRoy couldn't have done better in the direction of this film, nor could Paul Muni have done a better job of acting in it.
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Hard-Hitting Social Commentary
romanorum17 August 2015
Warning: Spoilers
James Allen (Paul Muni), a decorated American Sergeant in the First World War, decides he does not want to return to his pre-war job as a shipping clerk. From a window above his desk he can see a bridge being built, which fires his imagination as he had formerly served in the US Army Corps of Engineers. He decides to leave his small New Jersey town to explore a position in engineering.

But if there were a post-war economic boom, it doesn't find Allen, who cannot hit upon permanent employ despite moving throughout the Northeast and Midwest. The situation is so bleak that the veteran cannot even sell his war medal to a pawn shop, which has many. Allen ends up in the Deep South. In a flophouse he meets Pete (Preston S. Foster), who tells him he knows a diner where he can freeload a hamburger. After the meal and without Allen's knowledge, Pete pulls out a pistol and sticks up the counter man and forces Allen to pick up the five dollar "take." Nearby cops rush in and shoot Pete to death and arrest the bewildered Allen. The hapless man gets ten years hard labor in a chain gang (Georgia), where he is harshly treated and poorly fed. Like other prisoners, he works long hours and is even shackled to his meager bed at night. After a year Allen, helped by another prisoner, engineers an exciting escape through the woods with bloodhounds in close pursuit. He changes his name to Allen James and heads north to Chicago, where he finds meaningful employment as an engineer in a construction firm. Building roads and bridges, he rises up the corporate ladder.

Unfortunately for Allen, he meets wicked woman Marie Woods (Glenda Farrell), who recognizes his ability to earn a good salary. Reading his mail, Marie discovers Allen's past as a convict. Although they marry, the two are not a good match, and Marie is even promiscuous. Later Allen tells Marie he wishes to leave her for Helen (Helen Vinson), a society lady who is a good match. Of course Marie squeals to the authorities. But as Allen is a good citizen, the state of Illinois does not want to extradite him to Georgia. Besides as he has already been "rehabilitated," why send him back him to prison? After a federal controversy, a southern representative arrives at Chicago and convinces Allen to volunteer to be extradited to Georgia where he will supposedly be paroled after serving just 90 days on easy duty. If this settlement looks too good to be true, well it is. The Georgia authorities renege on their promise, and Allen is back in a chain gang.

Allen again escapes dramatically, this time driving a dump truck (with the body in the up position), and ironically dynamiting a bridge. This last action destroys Allen's chance of returning to respectability, however. He is free, but is also on the run. At the end Helen asks him, "How do you live?" Allen replies, "I steal!"

This powerful drama exposes the brutalities of the chain gang system. It features crisp dialog, realistic scenes, and such tight pacing that over a dozen years of Allen's life is covered in 92 minutes. As the perplexed Allen, Muni was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor, losing out to Charles Laughton ("The Private Life of Henry VIII"). Muni, born at Lemberg in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, did win the Oscar in 1936 ("The Story of Louis Pasteur"). "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" was based on a true story and subsequent book by Robert Elliott Burns, who in real life did receive a pardon of sorts in Georgia: a commuted sentence and restored civil rights. Note that Burns did really steal the $5.29 in order to eat; he died at age 63 in 1955. Because of the book and film, many Southern chain gangs were abolished. In 1987, another similar movie was made with Val Kilmer, "The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains."
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Great example of injustice
Morgan_Leslie9319 October 2012
"I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" is a great movie that shows the injustice that can happen in the world no matter how fair we try to make the justice system. It just shows that sometimes innocent people get convicted and the court system doesn't always catch it. Paul Muni did a great job as the main character, James Allen, who was a return soldier from WW1 who wanted to live to be more than some guy who worked in an office of a factory. Even though times were hard and many didn't understand why he would give up his secure job to search for a fantasy job of building things, he still persevered and traveled around finding little jobs to help him get to the next one. Being wrongly convicted of a robbery he was sent to work in a chain gang. The movie really shows the cruelty and horror of being wrongly convicted but also of what really happened in the chain gangs. You had to even ask for permission to wipe the sweat off your forehead or else you would get beat. Or even at a person the wrong way could cause you to get whipped. These things really did happen and Hollywood did a great of revealing it, especially since the movie was based on a true story. I have to say that the cinema photographer did an amazing job in this movie. There were really some great shots, such as the scene were James get whipped, just how you never see him actually get whipped but instead you as shown the shadows of what is happening and the reactions of his fellow chain gang members. The moral of the movie is great as well with the fact that a member of the chain gang can escape from prison and make a name for himself as a well respected individual in the community.
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Life Ain't Fair
ChristophCinema20 September 2012
Warning: Spoilers
"I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" is one of those movies that really made me mad. Not because it's a bad movie, but because it's a very good movie. This movie really pulls you into the story, so that when something bad or unfair happens, you feel like it's happening to you. There are many instances in this film where you just want to jump into the screen and change things around so they'll work out for the better. But if everything worked out for the better, I don't think this movie would be as effective. This is a movie that really puts you into the environment. Most of the film has this very dark, claustrophobic feel to it, and it really gets under your skin. Whenever there's a prison scene, and they show how much time has passed (through a shot of a calendar passing through the months), you feel it. Another thing that makes this film so effective is the sound. For an early talkie, this movie really goes all out. With a soundtrack of gunfire, explosions, smashing rocks, rattling chains, and moving vehicles, it really makes the movie much more effective. Even the moments with no sound are very effective, because it gives the audience a chance to breathe and take everything in. "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" is one of those movies that shows us a very painful reality. A reality that is very cruel, and sometimes very unfair to the innocent. By the end of the movie, you might be very mad, but in a good way. Being mad is a good sign, because it shows how engaging this movie really is. This movie is amazing from beginning to end. It may be dark and unfair sometimes, but so is reality.
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