Thursday 2 September 2010

A face like clay

I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, directed by Mervyn Leroy (1932)

Like James Cagney, Paul Muni was a Broadway star who made it big in Hollywood, during the early sound era. And, like Cagney, his breakthrough role was that of a gangster, in a Warner Brothers film. In Cagney’s case, it was in 1931’s The Public Enemy, and in Muni’s case it was a year later, in the original Scarface (yes, this was the film that the 1980s Al Pacino quasi-comedy was loosely based on). Later, that same year, Muni delivered his second powerhouse performance, in another black and white Warner Brothers social crime drama: I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, directed by Mervyn Leroy, who was coming off the successful Little Caesar, which made Edward G Robinson a star.

Of the stars of the Big Three Gangster films of that era, only Muni totally escaped the shadow of gangster typecasting, but that did not mean he could not do a crime drama about another subject entirely. But, before I move on, let me return to the Cagney comparison, for while their career trajectories toward stardom were fairly similar, they also succeeded because of another similarity: both men were great actors whose styles were far more ‘real’ than the overt acting styles that were carryovers from the silent days, and would not be relinquished until the 1950s, when, first Neo-Realism, then the New Wave, changed film forever. And this was, like Cagney, in large part to being a Broadway and Vaudeville star before hitting film. Another similarity the two actors shared was an ability to dominate the screen. Cagney did so with sheer brute magnetism. He was, despite any roles, always JIMMY CAGNEY! Muni, on the other hand, was a sort of Lon Chaney who could transcend horror genres. Muni’s face was like clay, whether in makeup or not, and one could read his characters’ thoughts just by watching his facial reactions and the glint in his eyes. Simply one of the best actors in film in any era, and a good quarter century ahead of the curve in acting, in terms of realism.

I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang is also a very good film, near-great. The only thing that holds it back from true greatness are a few plot holes and some weak acting from the supporting cast. It’s greatest quality, though, is how relevant and undated a film it is re: race, injustice, evil, society, the so-called ‘justice system,’ etc. The film starts off on a ship returning to America, bringing with it World War One veterans, including James Allen (Muni), a sergeant with dreams of becoming an engineer and ‘doing something’ with his life. Offered his old job back, he refuses it, and strikes out on the road, going through a number of jobs as a montage and map sequence charts his progress over the course of months and miles, from Boston to New Orleans to Wisconsin to the Deep South, where he finally hits a local flophouse in an unnamed state (the fact-based book the film was based on was set in Georgia, but Warner Brothers wanted to avoid conflict by leaving the state unnamed).

A fellow bunker at the flophouse tells him he can mooch a hamburger at a nearby diner, and while there, robs the place, forcing Allen, by gunpoint, to cooperate. The robber is shot dead, and when he sees the cops, Allen stupidly runs, thereby seemingly implicating himself. Here is the first gaping hole in the tale: the diner owner would have witnessed his being coerced and never let the cops arrest him. The real-life case that was based on this was not so clear-cut, but while this aids the drama, and begs for sympathy for Allen, it sacrifices the quality of realism and believability. A dumb ass judge (Berton Churchill, best known as Gatewood the banker, from John Ford’s Stagecoach) sentences him to ten years on a chain gang, and he spends month being brutalised, while plotting escape. Along the way, he makes some friends, such as an old convict named Bomber Wells (Edward Ellis), and the sidestories of a few minor characters come up. After coaxing a black prisoner to help make his ankle cuffs looser, he finally makes his escape, and, in a terrific scene, ends up breathing through a hollow reed in a pond, to fool his pursuers. He then makes his way to a big city, and reconnects with one of the paroled members of his chain gang, Barney Sykes, (Allen Jenkins), a pimp, who lets him stay the night, and offers him a freeby with one of his hookers. What’s notable is that in 1932, films were somewhat more lax about ‘morals’,’ due to the industry’s worries of trying to keep an audience. It wasn’t until 1934 that the Hays Code kicked in, and from then on most gangster and crime films had phony ‘uplifting’ endings.

From there, it’s on to Chicago, where years pass by with the shots of his ever increasing paycheck. The montages in this film are so effectively used it makes one wonder why this technique has gone out of style. The whole of the film is so tight and economical that, in its 92 minutes, it tells far more than most recent films twice its length. He also ends up being blackmailed into marriage by his landlady, Marie (Glenda Farrell) who opens a letter to him, from Allen’s preacher brother, Clint (Hale Hamilton) where he wrote of his chain gang past. She ends up being a spendthrift, boozer, and adulteress. Allen pleasures himself by falling in love with a nice woman, Helen (Helen Vinson), and begs Marie for a divorce, so he can marry Helen. He promises Marie almost all his money, but she refuses, and turns him in to the cops. The state of Chicago refuses to extradite him, though, but when the unnamed state guarantees him a pardon if her serves out 90 more days, he agrees, to put his past behind him. He soon finds out he was lied to. After 90 days his parole is denied, and his brother tells him he will be set free after a year, and then he’ll have the nation on his side, and that their family will work night and day for his release. Allen, at first, says, in a great moment, that it won’t be alright for anyone, and why should they have to work night and day since the authorities are far greater criminals, but then agrees. After a year of good behaviour, his parole is again denied, and this time he and Bomber steal a truck and escape by dynamiting the road and a bridge (a nice irony since Allen built bridges, in his Chicago job), although Bomber is shot dead.

Of course, this whole trope bares another plot hole: why would he go back, knowing how corrupt the chain gang system is? He had firsthand knowledge of how they initially railroaded him. As the old saying goes: screw me once, shame on you; screw me twice, shame on me. The film then ends with another plot hole. Allen ends up spending a year on the road. If he has escaped, why not go back to Chicago with more tales of the corrupt chain gang system? Illinois officials would not have sent him back, after all, he was not kidnapped back to Georgia - he went voluntarily, and was lied to by public officials- itself a near crime. Also, he would now truly have the whole nation on his side. But, then we would not get the superb and dour ending. Allen makes his way back to Chicago, to visit Helen, and, at night, approaches her car. He is acting paranoid, and tells her he had to see her one last time before they say goodbye forever. She asks where he is going, and if he needs anything and will he write to her? He says no to all. He backs away into the dark of an alley, after he is frightened by a noise, as she asks him how he lives. In one of cinema’s greatest last words, he says, ‘I steal,’ as the words trail off into the night, and the film shows that, just as in 1939’s Warner Brothers’ John Garfield crime drama, They Made Me A Criminal, it really did.

The 92 minute film is shown in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, and is part of a DVD seven pack of films from Warner Brothers called Controversial Classics. Its extra features include the original theatrical trailer, a musical short film called 20,000 Cheers For The Chain Gang, and an audio commentary on the film, by film historian Richard Jewell. It’s a solid, scene-specific commentary, but it is also a bit awkward for Jewell is never relaxed, and stilted, and sometimes seems like he’s too dependent upon his script. Jewell goes into depth about the real life man the film was based on, Robert Burns, who escaped from a Georgia chain gang, and compares the film to Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables. I would state that it also shares much in common with Cool Hand Luke, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, Orson Welles’ The Trial, and the television classic, The Prisoner.

The film has many good moments, such as when Allen tries to pawn his Medal Of Honor, only to have the shop owner show him many other such medals that no one wants. Another is in a barbershop, after his first escape, when Allen narrowly escapes recognition by a dimwit cop who describes him to the barber, as neither recognise he fits the description. A third is the release of Sykes, who hops a ride on the truck taking the casket of another prisoner for burial. First, one sees the unease with which he walks, as if he needs the chains and shackles to walk normally,. Then one sees him nonchalantly sit on the casket and strike a match to smoke. But, aside from its plot holes, there is some rather rancid acting, especially by Hale Hamilton, as Clint the preacher. Yes, he’s a stiff conservative, but his stiffness is a result of bad acting, not good acting portraying a stiff. Several other of the prisoners and guards are nearly as bad. The script, by Brown Holmes and Howard J Green is quite good - save for the plot holes, and lacks much of the melodrama that many other films of that era indulged in. The cinematography is unspectacular, save for the pre-film noir ending, and the music in the film is mostly diegetic.

But, as in most Cagney films, where he is the major reason to watch the film, for he dominates it, so does Muni dominate I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang. It is a pre-Method exhibition of total immersion in the character, and a truly great performance. Yet, he does it in a far subtler, and far more realistic manner than Cagney does in his films. Nonetheless, the film is one of those rare films that is both ‘essential’ cinema viewing and highly political, and succeeds precisely because its politics is subservient to its art. So, even if you are not interested in Muni, old films, crime dramas, political films, nor films that have that noxious claim of a ‘social message,’ go see I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang because it has all that, well done, and yet rises above same. Well done.


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