Thursday, 18 April 2013
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) - ★★★★½
Writers: Robert E. Burns, Howard J. Green (Screenplay)
Stars: Paul Muni, Edward Ellis, Noel Francis, Glenda Farrell, Helen Vinson, Allen Jenkins
I honestly think this movie has one of the worst titles of all time. It's a mouthful and an annoyance when having to discuss it among friends. Who would have thought that it would be one of the greatest films ever made? It is a phenomenal film with a message that is relevant to the US justice system today.
When James Allen (Muni) returns from serving in the army in WW1, he decides to follow his dream of becoming an engineer. He travels across The US looking for work when he meets a man who promises him a burger. James unknowingly becomes an accomplice to a robbery and is thus sentenced to 10 years on the harsh Louisiana chain gangs. It's a story about freedom, reform, and a flawed justice system.
Paul Muni gave a superstar performance. It was a good year for Best Actor nominees at The Academy Awards, but in 1932 it should have gone to Muni. He displayed a masterful range of emotions; showing how a man can be broken down gradually until there's hardly any hope left. There were a number of scenes where his performance gave me chills.
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang can be seen as an intelligent and almost revolutionary piece of cinema. It not only questions, but points out the flaw of the chain-gang justice theory. The theory goes that a hard criminal needs harsh punishment to fully reform into society. At the end of the film, James had no choice but to resort to a life of crime in order to live. THAT is what the justice system did to men in those days.
In comparing the justice system of the 1920s and the justice system of today, it's not hard to see the similarities. It may not be as tough today, but the same underlying principle is in place. This movie refutes that principle and simply says that it doesn't work. That is what makes this one of the greatest movies of all time.