I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

Dir. Mervyn LeRoy. Starring Paul Muni, Edward Ellis, Glenda Farrell

There’s a lot that doesn’t make sense about the last half-hour of Fugitive. James Allen (Muni) is a sucker, and apparently so is his lawyer, who has the foresight to tell him not to return to the Southern state he’s escaped from but doesn’t have the foresight to get the AG from that state to like, sign something that says they’ll let James out after his shortened term. He gets to the jail and realizes that they’re not going to give him some desk job for a month, but they intend to entrap him on the chain gang, the withering institution that he had the fortitude to escape from all those years ago. His second escape from prison is done by truck, and as exciting as this sequel ought to be, the original, a cross-country pursuit that ends with him breathing through a reed to avoid the hounds, is so far superior that the truck escape feels anticlimactic, even a little odd. I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang knows something meaningful, though, that keeps this from being a disappointment. It doesn’t really matter all that much if the movie stops making sense as long as the ending is good enough. The lesson is one that usually comes up when people talk about The Big Sleep, the movie which famously forgets to tell us about the reason for one of the corpses; it’s satisfying enough through the rest of the movie, and satisfying enough in the last minutes, to keep that from being an actually troubling problem. Fugitive has a better ending than The Big Sleep, and although it’s a little frustrating to watch James make a series of choices so bad that there are teenagers in horror movies mocking him, it pays off because at the end Helen (Helen Vinson) must be there to witness his confession. Even this scene is a teensy bit awkward: it’s tacked on loosely, a little crooked in its obvious standing as an epilogue. But there’s nothing awkward about Muni. Muni, shrouded in darkness, is as good as anyone could have been in this scene. His voice, when we do hear it, is surprisingly pitchy, like the voice of some spirit in a haunted house. It’s a choice in performance that is incredibly risky; lose the audience’s belief in James Allen (as it’s not crazy to believe we’d do in that third act) and we lose the power of the line that he speaks. Even a little disbelief in James Allen, or in the story itself, is not fatal. This delivery still works, and without it Fugitive would merely be a good movie.

We think back to one of the better moments of this third act: a smarmy lawyer from this Southern state says that the chain gang is obviously a public good: look at James, who has become a prominent, decent Chicagoan after being a criminal. The smarmy lawyer is not here in this moment. And we think back too to the equally smarmy virtue signaling that Scarface is forced to wear because of the Hays Code. Think about how frequently the law is upheld, and how the gangsters flout the law and do terrible things which the regular citizenry must condemn. The gangsters (led, obviously, by Paul Muni) are tremendously effective criminals and monsters disrupting the peace of the community. The law destroys Muni’s Tony Camonte in the end, reducing him to a gibbering mess who pleads for his life before he’s shot down. The law’s power to destroy is amply on display in Fugitive as well. James, who left a decent but boring job in his hometown in order to seek his fortune, is now just another bum; he gets mixed up with the wrong sort of bum; he is, unwillingly, made an accessory to burglary; he’s sentenced to the chain gang. The law has beaten him the same way he has busted up rocks with a sledgehammer. And his final, famous statement is the proof that the law has beaten him. In its restless pursuit of him, in the way it seeks to obliterate his pride and his individualism and his ambition, it has finally succeeded. How do you live? Helen asks, by now desperate with pity for the fiance she ran out of time to marry. “I steal!” he says. Before Orwell came up with his Ingsoc contradictions, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang got there with genuine emotional force.

The last scene is especially famous, but the first hour of this movie is on its own merits a really exceptional one. One of my special pigeons is this weird need people have to feel good when they watch movies about terrible things, like there ought to be a silver lining in situations where there is no silver lining; perhaps this is because we feel that art ennobles us, or, more charitably, because we are sympathetic types who cannot look too long in the face of misery without feeling a pain that is difficult to shake. War movies, movies about the Holocaust, and movies set in prisons are the triumvirs; they frequently do this strange work of trying to show us that there are sugarcoated moments in damnably bad stretches, places where we can reach out and touch human dignity while everything goes to pieces around us. How else to explain how, in the same decade, AMPAS gave Oscars to Steven Spielberg and Roberto Benigni for movies that want us to believe that a key message of the Holocaust is about human decency? How else to explain that The Shawshank Redemption, a movie about how the real tunnel to freedom was the friends we made along the way, has sat atop IMDb’s user-made Top 250 for as long as I’ve known IMDb to exist? I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, which is based on a memoir as opposed to a Stephen King short story, is not a movie which sees incarcerated people doing hard time as folks with the energy to resist via beer, opera, and a prison library; unlike Cool Hand Luke, which is based on a Donn Pearce novel, there’s no scene which implies there is some community which can rally together to revel in the spectacle of the hot prisoner downing four dozen eggs and more.

This movie is about the sheer brutality of the chain gang. It’s about the inhumanity of guards who turn their new men into convicts by letting them be shamed or injured into compliance. It’s about the beatings that they undergo, which LeRoy makes more horrible and indelible by giving us the whipping via shadows. It’s about the scene where we see all of these men banging rocks into dust, the mimesis of what the overseers do to them. It’s about the fact that this must one of the only integrated groups in the South during the time it’s set, the only place where white men are considered as worthless and venal as black men. When James figures out that he can wriggle his way out of the chains around his feet to freedom (with some help from one of the black convicts wielding the hammer), he chooses to go for that opportunity; watching him slip out of one with relative ease before struggling frantically with the other is almost unbearably tense, even if we know that he’ll succeed to become that titular fugitive; the scene knows that our sympathy for him outweighs our logic, and it has everything to do with a brilliant Muni performance. By then, he is still canny, but we can see the fear in his face, the rapid movements of his hands serving the dual purpose of freeing himself from bondage and simultaneously implicating his well-deserved panic.

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