Tuesday, October 23, 2012


(November 1932, U.S.)

I must confess that every once in a while I feel as if I may be alienating many of my readers when I post a blog for a very old film. I know there are many out there who love classic films, but I can't shake the idea that whenever I get into something that dates, say pre-1950, many out there are likely shaking their heads thinking to themselves, "This is way before my time.". Presuming I'm correct, that's a very tragic attitude in the world of film, in my opinion. There are countless gems to be discovered in the "Pre-Code" era of cinema, as well as the silent period, too.

That little gripe having been aired out, be aware that without a classic prison picture like I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG (there's a long title I'll try not to repeat too often!), we may never have gotten future classic prison films like BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ (1962) or THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994). You've very likely never heard even heard of this film or its star, Paul Muni. The best I can do to familiarize you with the star is to say that if you love Brian DePalma's SCARFACE, know that it's a remake of an original 1932 film of the same and Paul Muni is the infamous gangster that would one day be taken over by Al Pacino as Tony Montana. Did that help?

Paul Muni plays James Allen who return a decorated veteran of World War I whose war experience makes him extremely restless to just spend his life at an ordinary job. He wants to see places and build things. He leaves home to find work on any sort of project, but unskilled labor is plentiful and it's hard for him to find a job. Wandering and sinking into poverty, he accidentally becomes caught up in a robbery and is sentenced to ten years on a brutal Southern chain gang (for stealing only $5.00, no less!). The brutality of that prison life (mind you, the word PRISON is never actually spoken - only the words CHAIN GANG) is obvious, even for the 1930s. He inevitably (and predictably) escapes and actually meets with years of success as he's not only able to evade the law, but also to become a productive and upstanding citizen of the city of Chicago. Like all good things, though, it doesn't last long enough. He's caught again and is offered a deal for a full pardon if he'll return to the chain gang and serve out his time. Quite stupidly, he agrees to the deal on faith. This can be particularly unnerving to the viewer because you know from the minute the offer is made that it's going to turn out to be total bullshit and James will be right back where he was with no chance of a future. You see, when you watch a prison film, you have a tremendous longing for the protaganist to escape the brutal hell of his life and emerge triumphantly, whether he's guilty or innocent of his crime. We can't help it. That's what makes a great prison film work.

There's an unforgettable shot at the close of the film when James, having escaped for the second time, visits the woman he loves outside her home. The visit is only momentary and he must then take it on the run again. As he says goodbye, James retreats into the blackness of not only the film itself, but the life he now maintains on the run from those who have shown him nothing but brutality and injustice.

This film is one that defines classic black and white cinema. If you have the means, the mind and the patience, rent it and see it for yourself. Trust me.

Favorite line or dialogue:

James Allen: "Helen! Helen!"
Helen Vinson: "Jim! Jim! Why haven't you come before?"
Jim: "I couldn't. I was afraid to."
Helen: "It's been almost a year since you escaped."
Jim: "But I haven't escaped! They're still after me. They'll always be after me! I've had jobs but I can't keep them. Something happens. Something turns up. I hide in rooms all day and travel by night. No friends, no rest, no peace!"
Helen: "Oh, Jim!"
Jim: "Keep moving! That's all that's left for me! Forgive me, Helen. I had to take a chance to see you tonight...just to say goodbye.'
Helen: "Oh, Jim, it was all going to be so different!"
Jim: It is different! They've made it different!"


  1. I loved this movie when I first saw it. I want nothing to do with prison, ever, but prison movies have a fascination for most movie fans. The last line of this movie haunts me to this day, as he is leaving Helen and she cries out "How do you live?" and from the shadows his voice comes echoing back, in a hissed whisper "I steal." And suddenly the good man we have rooted for and cared about has been reduced to the very thing he fought so hard to avoid becoming. I know the acting is melodramatic by the standards of today, but the performances seem heartfelt and hyper real. Muni was the DeNiro/Pacino of his day, and this movie gives you a good sense as to why. If people would give some of these older films a chance they would be amazed at how entertaining they are, and how well a story can be told in a brief amount of time, without a lot of flash. I get caught up in movies on TCM all the time that I wander into the middle of, but can figure out what is going on pretty quickly, and then ride it out to a usually satisfying conclusion. I may have mentioned this before but back in the 70s and early 80s, local stations would run old movies here with only two breaks an hour as a way to compete with the big boys. That's how I first saw "I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang". My wife was out at a class she was taking and came back just after it ended, I was sitting there devastated by the ending. When I repeated the line to her, she got chills herself. Man what a great movie.

  2. Sometimes people can't understand why I love these old movies so much, saying that they're way before my time. I try to explain that, like you, Richard, when I was young in the 1970s and 1980s, these WERE the movies that were on television; late at night, weekend afternoons, etc.