Preface: Now that I’ve finally decided to go “old” with the blog, I’m doing it in style with not just a regular “old” film, but two, and two that have ripened with age. For this week’s Midnight Screenings, the ’90s, ’80s, ’70s, ’60s, ’50s, and ’40s wouldn’t do. I’m taking it back to two of the granddaddy’s of filmmaking from the early ’30s, two of the earliest “talkies” and two supreme influences on Midnight Cinema from a time where films could be more openly playful and subversive as filmmakers were still trying to prod and poke at the medium to expose its limits and possibilities.
One of the most controversial films made during pre-Code era Hollywood, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang appears shockingly modern viewed from 2014. It’s blunt, direct, and forthright about its, admittedly very obvious, message, and from its implicatory title to its haunted fade to black it makes no bones about what was then, and still is today, a significant issue with a justice system that favors harsh abuse over human rights. The movie plays things scruffily and with a hound-dog broadness, perhaps for the best; the freed-from-the-shackles primal qualities afford the film a harshness and a blunt edge giving way to a simply told but severely felt indictment of the American justice system. The film, released in 1932 just before the Hays Code, breathes new life into that eternally soulless void of a garishly emotive genre of filmmaking: the message movie.
Indeed, I mention the pre-Hays Code production of the film not as detail but as probably the most important reason for the film’s success. It was released before the implementation of the Code in 1933, which formally restricted certain naughtier or more confrontational aspects of the subject matters acceptable for filmmaking. Naturally, this leads to a flourishing of that special demonic hell-spawn of the mawkish Hollywood production system, the weepy message movie which spends its time talking very loudly about “big important subjects”.
Released in 1932, however, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang bears none of the hallmarks of the genre as it would develop. At an excoriating 93 minutes, it ruthlessly trims any sense of excess, arguably to a fault. The story of James Allen who returns from World War I to grave poverty and is functionally framed for robbery, the film unloads critique with scary efficiency and a muscular pulse. Soon enough, he’s sentenced to and trapped in a Southern chain gang, and the rest of the film details his life there, his escape, and his return. The whole thing is steadfastly, unnervingly free of hand-holding or sentimentality – this is angry, bitter, caustic filmmaking imbued with a wrathful anger at any and all semblance of moral authority, a perfect film for the early Depression era.
The toxic howl of mirthless entropy found in the film begins from the get-go. Early on, the film transitions ruthlessly between the patriotic fervor of soldiers returning from World War I to the bitter hopelessness of poverty faced by a man who no longer fits into society. Elsewhere, it makes use of these quick cuts on action throughout the film – one shot has a gavel of a judge sentencing Allen transition to a chain gang hammer, connecting the entire justice system with his oppressive fate with a sort of amateurish zeal that is perhaps poorly formed but undeniably effective as a nightmare-like impression of temporal compression. And indeed, time is at a premium throughout the film – it moves quickly, sometimes eschewing transition, sacrificing the slow-building nuance of haunting impressionist drama for immediate affect. It often feels rushed because of this, especially as it hurtles (quite literally) toward its conclusion. But the images often speak for themselves, taking on a life beyond the conventional norms of narrative progression and aiming directly for the mind with a fire-spewing terseness, as if the filmmakers, like Allen, are so simultaneously enraged and hopelessly, emotionally depleted to care about the logic of a slow-building narrative and simply want to hit us in the gut.
And hit us in the gut they do. It all comes down to its wonderfully terse, implicating title, openly indicating the film’s attempts to “speak” to an audience as many message-movies did. Key, however, is the use of the present-tense, hinting that there is in fact no resolution to the film, that its anxieties aren’t closed-off but radically open-ended, continuing imminently. It’s wonderfully impactful, free of any rounded-off edges or dreary pleasantries, and it all comes down to that famous final shot. As Muni walks backwards, away from the camera, he doesn’t look behind him because he knows what lies there: eternal darkness and abyssal shadow, the cruelties of the prison system having finally forced him into leading the life of a criminal he was initially accused as. The scene is haunting in its overtly German Expressionist influences, capturing a dramatically hellish, evacuated void of soul-sucking despair constructed by an oppressive system looking for scapegoats.
What we’re left with is a breathless gasp of a film that pinballs us around with its righteous fury to startling effect. Its subject matter is unambiguous and, if its directness feels more modern than many old-timey mawkish Hollywood productions, it doesn’t in any way feel like it could have been made today. It repeatedly eschews the niceties of narrative development, but it’s the cavalier amateurishness of it, the sense of rebellious energy not filtered through filmic convention – that combination of radiating anger and irradiated emptiness – that lends the movie a timeless but alien feel. It’s so caught up in its passion and its message it sometimes forgoes nuance, which is the crippling flaw of any message movie. Except while those films strive for sentimentalism, this one goes for the gut with a lashing, thrashing simplicity. It shouldn’t work. But boy does it.