I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

“What would I say to a hamburger? Boy. I’d take Mr. Hamburger by the hand and say, ‘Pal, I haven’t seen you for a long, long time.’”

‘I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang’, directed by Mervyn LeRoy in 1932, is a crime-drama starring Paul Muni as James Allen, a soldier returning from the First World War who struggles to adapt to civilian life. Allen comes home and is reemployed as a clerk in an office. His desk faces a construction site and he is eager to work instead as an engineer. He sets out but finds it hard to get a job, falling into poverty he is wrongly arrested and put to hard labour in prison. He escapes, starts a new life, but a blackmailing women and a misplaced letter mean that his past catches up with him. It’s a well-paced, tense and socially crusading film. The basic plot of Allen’s return, arrest, escape and recapture is punctuated with action scenes, gunfights and car chases, and Muni’s dark and distressed performance sells his story. Where the film really stands out, however, is in the ways it narrates the injustices of the US penal system at the time. Based on ‘I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang!’ by Robert Elliott Burns, the film continues the feeling of contemporary expose that the book started. It feels as though the heightened thriller elements of the movie sweeten the social commentary, at times in a way that distract and sometimes undermine, but overall, because the film is so well directed, the result is a powerful and convincing argument for reform.

Would I recommend it? For the social significance of the film alone, yes. It’s almost like the flipside of ‘Scarface’ or ‘Little Caesar’ showing the agony of incarceration rather than the criminal world. It’s punchy, powerful and important. Watch with ‘Scarface’ for another Paul Muni performance, albeit a less innocent one.


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