Like many men returning from World War I, James Allen (Paul Muni) finds himself a changed man. He has a factory job to come home to, but he can’t deal with the environment anymore and decides to leave home and get into the construction business. He travels from city to city in search of work and eventually finds himself in Georgia. One night, he meets a fellow drifter and the two of them stop to get a hamburger. James unwittingly finds himself being part of a robbery when the other drifter robs the restaurant. Police shoot down the robber, but capture James and pin the whole thing on him and sentence him to ten years on a chain gang. Life on the chain gang is horrifically brutal and finds himself surrounded by hardened criminals. The risk involved with making a break for it seems worth it to James and successfully escapes.
Once he makes it to Chicago, he finally has some luck getting a construction job. He starts out as a laborer, but he proves to have some good ideas and quickly works his way up in the company, even becoming a respected member of the community. He starts seeing his landlord Marie (Glenda Farrell), but Marie has stronger feelings for him that he does for her. When he’s about to move into a bigger place, she reveals that she knows he’s a fugitive and blackmails him into marrying her. Their marriage certainly isn’t a happy one. While he’s out working, she spends money left and right and cheats on James. He does find some happiness when he meets and falls in love with Helen (Helen Vinson). But Marie isn’t willing to divorce him so he can marry Helen and tells the police who he is.
The authorities in Georgia make a deal with James where he will be pardoned if he comes back and serves 90 more days. James just wants to clear his name and put that stage of his life behind him so he gladly agrees. But it turns out that this plan was all a big lie to get him to come back to Georgia and completely finish his sentence and his pardon is repeatedly denied. James can’t bear the thought of spending nearly a decade more of his life paying for something he didn’t do and makes a break for it again. This time, he steals a truck with a fellow convict and once they cross a bridge, they blow it up so the guards can’t chase them. Once again, James is back on the lam. A year later, he makes his way to see Helen one more time to say goodbye before resuming his life on the run.
Yesterday I said that Heroes for Sale was one of the greatest social commentary type of pre-codes, but I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is the ultimate social commentary pre-code. It was based on the memoirs of Robert Elliott Burns, whose story is largely kept in tact in the movie version. The biggest difference between the movie version and the true story is that Burns was initially arrested for being one of three men who held up a grocery store for $5.81 when they were desperate for money to eat. Warner Brothers was hit by a slew of libel lawsuits by the state of Georgia over this film and the movie was even completely banned in Georgia. Burns was able to sneak his way over to Hollywood to be on set for some of the production, but had to leave after a few weeks because the risk of being re-arrested was too great. He was arrested again in Newark, New Jersey not long after the movie was released, but the movie was such a success and so many people were questioning the validity of the criminal justice system because of it that extraditing Burns would have only resulted in even more outrage. Burns was eventually pardoned in 1945 and chain gangs being phased out is a direct result of Burns’ memoirs and this film.
Not only is Fugitive one of my favorite pre-codes, it’s one of my favorite movies in general. Very taut and gripping. It starts out a little slow in the beginning, but once the action starts, it takes off like a shot and doesn’t slow down again. There are some moments in here that rival Hitchcock movies in terms of suspense. The scene where James first escapes from the chain gang and hides from the cops by hiding underwater is one of the most tense moments I have ever seen in a movie. Paul Muni does a brilliant job playing James Allen. This movie would be amazing enough if it were a fictional story, but the most astonishing thing about it is that it was a true story. Everybody should see I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang at least once in their lives.