Genre: Crime Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 32 min.
Release Date: November 19th, 1932 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Mervyn LeRoy Actors: Paul Muni, Glenda Farrell, Helen Vinson, Noel Francis, Preston Foster, Allen Jenkins, Edward Ellis, David Landau, Hale Hamilton, Sally Blane, Louise Carter
he Sunset Division returns home to New York in the 1920s, with the many sailors playing cards and reminiscing about the various careers that used to occupy their time. Engineer corpsman James Allen (Paul Muni) dreams of a construction job – or anything that can keep him out of the grind of a factory. When his mother (Louise Carter) and brother (Hale Hamilton) greet him at the train station, he’s dismayed to learn that his old boss, Mr. Parker (Reginald Barlow), has saved his former position at the shoe factory, and expects him to return straightaway. Of course, Allen has no interest in getting caught up in the same depressing orders and routines that the military provided – yet a good job is something he certainly shouldn’t pass up.
“I’ve been through hell!” The army has changed James; he’s learned that life has more to offer than uniforms and medals. It’s not long before he leaves home to pursue construction gigs in New England, but they never seem to last long or provide dependable wages. Traveling through Boston, New Orleans, Lake Winnebago, and St. Louis, James continually finds himself broke and out of work. Eventually, he meets Pete (Preston Foster), who swindles the poor man into aiding in the robbery of a restaurant – an act that lands James in a hard labor camp for a crippling ten-year sentence.
The film is something of a cautionary tale, revealing just how easy it is for a naive and desperate man to end up on the wrong side of the law. And once James is incarcerated, he’s treated as less than human, disregarding his particular crime or the unfortunate circumstances that led him into prison (others brag of the triple-homicides or murders that give them seniority). Breakfast consists of grease, fried dough, pig fat, and sorghum; the chains that keep him perpetually tied to his fellow inmates are also used to beat him into cooperation; and he must ask for permission to wipe the sweat from his face while pummeling rocks with a sledgehammer, or else the supervisors knock him to the ground with their fists. And at the end of the day, after speaking out about the mistreatment of a sickly prisoner, James is given a series of lashings. After just the first week, he realizes that there are only two ways out: to serve the time and walk through the front gate, or to be carted away in a casket.
“Doesn’t a man ever break loose?” Once Allen plots his escape, the film adopts plenty of suspense. It’s thoroughly nerve-wracking to witness the planning, the rehearsing, and the waiting necessary for that perfect opportunity. Of course, breaking out of the chain gang is just the first of many hurdles; avoiding the cops, fleeing across state lines, and managing to survive with extremely limited resources pose nearly insurmountable odds. Plus, everyone James encounters seems suspicious; betrayal feels as if it looms at every turn.
Tightly scripted, with frequent near-misses and white-knuckle encounters, “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” is dark, dour, and devoid of comic relief. The scenarios are severe; the drama is mature; and the characters are all out to use one another, exploit their weaknesses, or reap revenge. It’s a tough, unyielding look at trapped people, based on the autobiographical novel by Robert Elliott Burns. The picture also brings to the forefront the inhumanity of the torturous labor camp system, tackling the subject with the same uncompromising ferocity as the fictional yet decidedly austere relationships (even the romances lack levity). It’s also notable for its thrilling finale, which is largely unpredictable, considering the tragic nature of this pitiable soul.
– Mike Massie