I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)

Paul Muni claimed his signature role and gave his most brilliant performance as James Allen in Mervyn LeRoy’s hard-hitting I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, one of Warner Bros.’s 1930s social melodramas targeting U.S. injustice. This American Les misérables of the South chronicles Allen’s pilgrim’s progress as the jobless veteran is wrongly convicted of theft, endures brutal prison conditions, escapes and, under an assumed identity, becomes a model citizen only to have the law catch up with him, turning him into an actual thief on the lam. “How do you live?” he is asked at the film’s famous conclusion. The answer comes from the impenetrable night into which Allen has disappeared: “I steal.” Thus LeRoy, working from a script by Howard J. Green and Brown Holmes, was able to enjoin image and sound to imply a multitude of James Allens anonymous and hidden in the darkness of the Great Depression. Despite the media focus on him and his flight, Allen is a desperate instance of the “forgotten man” whose cause Busby Berkeley’s great closing number would take up the following year in LeRoy’s Gold-Diggers of 1933.
     Visually, the film conjures associations to bring Allen’s extreme experiences in proximity to the audience’s own; for instance, after establishing Allen as prototypical in a crowded lunch counter scene, the crowded prison to which he is consigned suggests tenement living, in an extreme form, in the supposedly free “outside.” Whether LeRoy and company were sufficiently postmodernist in their outlook to extend this suggestion by correlating audiences watching the film in a packed movie house with the on-screen prison inmates, the unconscious effect on these audiences may have nonetheless kicked in. Certainly it is the case that the film’s close draws an additional draft of power from the visual connection between the on-screen darkness and the darkness inside the movie house. Then the lights inside the theater come up. The audience’s emergence from the theater’s darkness in effect provides a “happy ending” to the film, which itself concludes on an inconclusive downbeat. Cinema works in mysterious ways.
     Everything works in this film. It is immaterial that not everything may have been precisely planned. It never is.

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