After Jim Allen (Paul Muni) returns from serving in WWI doesn’t want to return to his old job at the factory. Instead he wants to become an engineer, “a man’s job where he can do things.” He starts from the bottom up, travels as a skilled laborer wherever the job takes him but soon work becomes scarce. One night, an acquaintance brings him to a burger joint and tries to rob the place. Wrongly accused of armed robbery, Jim is sentenced to ten years on the chain gang.
Now, before we get into the best parts of the film, what do you imagine a chain gang to be exactly? I think I only had cartoon images of men in stripes chained to a cannonball. All the little details about life on the chain gang is what makes this film so fascinating. Jim is first fitted with iron shackles around each ankle with thirteen links of chain between his legs. You notice that the men walk in short scuffed steps, even after they’ve been released. A second chain is attached to the one between their ankles and has a large iron loop at the end. Jim quickly learns to always carry this one, rather than let it drag. The loop is used to connect all the men together on one large chain during work, sleep and riding in the back of the truck. When the men are unstrung, the chain is ripped out, clanking and probably whipping the men’s hands as they hold their loop.
The men are treated like animals by the guards. It seems that every night, they find someone to pull out of bed and whip, whether he’s been out of line, lazy or just in need of some reminding. While working, the men can’t even wipe the sweat from their face without permission. And Jim is supposed to endure ten years of this?
During work one day, Jim makes a daring escape. This is one of those classic and exciting chase scenes. Jim is running through the woods, searching for a way to cover his scent with the hounds just one step behind him, the guards yelling, rifles in hand ready to kill and in the distance we hear a train wailing. Director Mervyn LeRoy knows his chase scenes.
Once Jim has escaped, he knows everyone is looking for him. The tension and suspense as a man on the run is what makes this such a great classic noir. The barbershop scene had me on pins and needles and left me relieved with laughter: “How was it close enough? Plenty.”
When the search has quieted down, Jim changes his name to Allen James (yeah, that’ll really fool them) and restarts his dream of becoming an engineer. But he’s constantly looking over his shoulder. How long can this dream last as a fugitive? Will he have more merit now as an accomplished man?
Without seeing Calvalcade, State Fair or Smilin’ Through I have to pick I’m a Fugitive from a Chain Gang for 1932-1933. It’s wonderfully gritty, realistic and sets up the classic noir genre to a high standard that will explode in the next decade. Paul Muni carries the film on his shoulders with ease and Mervyn LeRoy createst every scene to be tantalizing, smart and eyeopening. See it just to have a new understanding of a chain gang. If you enjoy prison movies, escape films or classic noir I cannot recommend this film enough.