If you want to see a real prison film, there is a WB 30's picture that was far truer to life and delved deeply into the black that eventually became noir. Cold, tough, brutal and ultimately a tragedy this is the great forgotten American classic I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang.
I said this.
So I watched the film again.
LMS: I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932)
This is a dark, gritty, nasty, blistering, scathing piece of work that goes up and down a continual roller coaster of the American societal structure. It is an indictment of the chain gang prison system but also a microcosm of our inherent societal oversights. Paul Muni gives what is his best performance (forget Scarface) as the main character, a returning WWI veteran who only wants to fulfill himself as a great doer of things, like any other man has ever wanted to do. But the world refuses to let him.
And so it begins. From returning decorated soldier to jobbing worker to traveling worker to hobo to being the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. This lands him on the chain gang, for an extremely overdone sentence of 10 years. And this is not prison, it isn't even quite Earth any longer. It is Hell. A Hell that exists for only one thing, to absolutely destroy a man.
Any normal film would focus on the prison, the term served, the plans for escape but it is the mark of greatness that has the plot go outside and watch a man re-establish himself amongst society with some actual success. The sheer adeptness of the filmmaking process on this, a 1932 WB picture, is astounding. Mervin LeRoy had just made Little Caesar, but that was no indication for the giant leap forward in technique displayed here. This is a beyond taut picture, brilliantly suspenseful throughout and vividly puts you right alongside the innocent man for not just a section but the entire duration of the film!
And being a PreCode film, it pulls no punches. And gosh is it wonderful to not have to deal with the sidestepping.
The controversy caused by the film's scathing depiction of the chain gang system was justified in that not only was it based on a real ex-con's memoir, but that the scenarios are largely if not fully accurate. The public outrage upon learning of of this essentially caused the reform that ended the gangs.
This is an honest picture, and this honesty combined with an incredible cinematic quality is the key to its effectiveness. This has all the mighty power of the classic Warner storytelling machine with the weight of a true social drama.
And the ending is truly haunting. Not one of those that merely sticks with you, but genuinely and definitively haunting and to be perfectly honest foretelling the onset of film noir.
A forgotten American masterpiece along the likes of The Grapes of Wrath. 4 stars. Storytelling perfection. One of the best films of the 30's, one of the best films the studio ever made and unforgettable. THE Prison film.
See it by all means. Buy, rent, anything.
It also may be the first film where a person hides from pursuers by diving into a lake and breathing through a reed. It absolutely 100% influenced the same scene in Dr. No right down to the guard dogs.
VADER!? WHERE THE HELL IS MY MOCHA LATTE? -Palpy on a very bad day.
“George didn’t think there was any future in dead Han toys.”-Harrison Ford