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Film / I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

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"I steal!"

Hailed as one of the most influential films of the 20th century, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is a 1932 crime drama film released by Warner Bros., directed by Mervyn LeRoy and starring Paul Muni.

Muni plays Sergeant James Allen, who upon his return home from World War I knows he is now a changed man, and leaves home to go work in construction. Jobs are hard to find, however, and as he travels the country looking for work Allen soon finds himself falling into poverty. Along the way, he manages to befriend the wrong man at the wrong time, and soon after getting a bite to eat becomes an unwilling participant in a robbery: He is forced at gunpoint to help steal $5 note  from the diner, and when the man holding the gun on him is shot by police, he panics and tries to flee, barely making it through the door before getting captured. He is sentenced to serve ten years of hard labor on the chain gang at a Deep South prison camp.

After enduring enough of the back-breaking work and the sadistic treatment of the camp guards, Allen escapes with the help of two other inmates, and travels to Chicago. He gradually works his way up to become a success in the construction business under the name Allen James, but when femme fatale Marie Woods discovers he is an escapee, she blackmails him into marriage for his money. However, it's clear that they are not in love in the slightest; after discovering that she is unfaithful, Allen cheats on her with the beautiful and kind Helen. When Allen asks Marie for a divorce, she is so outraged she tells the authorities that Allen James is James Allen, and he is caught once more. But when the press hears of the brutality he endured on the chain gang, and the successful and respected member of the community he's become since his escape, public pressure leads to the governor of Illinois refusing to extradite him.

The (unnamed) Southern state that convicted Allen offers him a deal: if he turns himself in and serves a token term of 90 days—which, he's promised, will consist of light clerical work—he'll be given a full pardon. Wanting to clear his name, Allen agrees. Upon his return, however, he learns the "deal" was just a ruse to get him back behind bars, and he's not only put right back to work on the chain gang but told he must serve out the remaining nine years of his sentence. Bitterly disillusioned, Allen manages to escape once more. Some time later Helen encounters him on a darkened street, where he tells her that he can never see her again and will be on the run for the rest of his life, before disappearing back into the shadows. (Director LeRoy claimed that this final scene was an idea that came to him after a light bulb blew out on the set, plunging it into darkness, but in fact that was always part of the script.)

One of the most famous of the many "problem pictures" Warner produced in the '30s to highlight (and exploit) social and political issues, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang was based on the true story of Robert Elliott Burns, and with the help of this movie, Burns — who was still on the run at the time this was made — was freed in 1945, and lived free until his death ten years later. (Burns would later be the subject of a 1987 made-for-TV biopic called The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains, in which he's played by Val Kilmer).

This film contains the following tropes:

  • All Crimes Are Equal: Allen is serving the same amount of time, doing the same labor, and living in the same conditions as hardened murderers. Most notably mentioned is a man who killed his wife, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law, which makes Allen understandably unwilling to say he's only in for robbing five dollars.
  • And Now You Must Marry Me: Allen's landlady demands that he marry her, or she'll turn him in.
  • Based on a True Story: The only two big differences are that in the film, Robert Burns was changed to James Allen, and in real life Burns stole the money on his own, he wasn't held at gunpoint.
  • Became Their Own Antithesis: James Allen made a life for himself in Chicago as a hard-working construction worker who would build bridges and eventually earn respect from the entire city... that same man would eventually disregard his morals and blow up a bridge with dynamite, literally burns those bridges to society and become an elusive fugitive with unknown whereabouts.
  • Bronson Canyon and Caves: An early use of the location. It's used to represent a desolate hillside where the chain gang break up rocks for a highway.
  • Caper Rationalization: Unlike the book's author, the protagonist in this adaptation is coerced at gunpoint into stealing the money, so as to not lose any sympathy with the audience.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Allen's buddy mentions that one of the prisoners is an expert with a sledgehammer, never missing his target. That's the guy that Allen gets to take whacks at the shackles around his legs.
  • Clothesline Stealing: Allen has just escaped prison and, while the guards are still after him, comes across a farm where clothes are hanging out to dry. He "harvests" the clothesline and runs away with his new garments that turn out to fit perfectly, tossing his prison clothes away to throw the hounds off the scent.
  • Conveniently Cellmates: When Allen returns to prison after several years, he ends up in the same quarter with the old prisoner who helped him out the first time around. Guess what the two are planning next.
  • Double Meaning: After escaping the first time, Allen gets himself a suit of clothes and a shave. During the shave, a cop comes into the barbershop and chats with the barber about the fugitive his department is chasing, giving an accurate description of Allen as he lies there helpless in front of them. He hurriedly gets up, pays and leaves. As he's going out the door, the barber asks if the shave was "close enough?" "Plenty," Allen says, referring to the very close shave he just experienced with the cop.
  • Downer Ending: Allen is left on the run, living a life of petty crime and desperation, with no hope for the future or of seeing Helen ever again.
  • Driving a Desk: Most obvious during Allen and Bomber's flight from the guards in a stolen dump truck.
  • Emerging from the Shadows: Allen when he seeks out Helen one more time. He goes back into them.
  • Exploding Calendar: Probably the Trope Codifier with its extensive use of this trope. Months fly off a calendar several times, like when Allen is waiting out the months during his second stint on the chain gang.
  • Fade to Black: Happens in the final scene, as Allen retreats into the darkness. When the final line is uttered, the film is completely black.
  • Fantasy-Forbidding Father: Jim's older brother doesn't want him to pursue his dream of working in Engineering, but to stay with the safe, reliable clerk job in town.
  • The Film of the Book: I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! by Robert Burns. The book, and the film, were released while he was still in hiding after his second escape (hence the present tense in the title).
  • Had to Come to Prison to Be a Crook: James Allen is arrested after being coerced into participating in a robbery, and fleeing in a panic with the money after seeing his captor gunned down in front of him. Despite the circumstances, the judge throws the book at him: ten years of hard labor. After escaping—twice—he is forced into hiding, and in the film's memorable final scene, bids farewell to his former fiancĂ©e.
    Helen: Oh, Jim. It was all going to be so different.
    Jim: It is different. They've made it different. I've gotta go.
    Helen: I can't let you go like this!
    Jim: I've got to.
    Helen: Can't you tell me where you're going? [Jim shakes his head] Will you write? [Jim shakes his head again] Do you need any money? [Jim shakes his head again] But you must, Jim. How will you live?
    Jim: [whispers] I steal!
  • Hellhole Prison: The film doesn't sugarcoat the novel writer's ordeal in prison. 15 hours of backbreaking labor 6 days a week, a diet of pig fat with a dough ball made of flour and lard, and of course lashes with the strap if the guards think you didn't work hard enough.
  • Hollywood Law: Averted—the practices you see in this movie were lawful until the 1950s. This movie helped bring them to an end.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Linda takes good care of James on his first night after his initial escape. That likely would not have played out that way had the film been made after The Hays Code went into effect in 1934.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: In a reverse Shoo the Dog, Jim leaves Helen forever, cutting her off from him permanently, so she won't be caught up in his wrecked life.
  • Idiot Ball: James' brother who, in a letter to his brother, reveals his identity as a fugitive. No writing in code, just spill it all out about the police still looking for him.
  • I Lied: The entire state of Georgia does this, luring James back with a promise of parole after 90 days, only to reimpose the full 10-year sentence.
  • Institutional Apparel: The prison outfits with prominent black and white horizontal stripes.
  • Irony: Jim's second escape is very symbolic—the man who dreamed of building bridges blows one up to get away from the police.
  • Karma Houdini: Marie is a Gold Digger who blackmails James into an unhappy marriage, cheats on him shamelessly, betrays him to the police the first time he (nicely) asks her for a divorce, and reads her tenants' mail. We never see her again after she turns James in; for all we know, she gets off scot-free for all the misery she caused him.
  • Lighter and Softer: Chain gangs in the South were actually far worse than depicted in the film, and were mostly comprised of black prisoners.
  • Male Gaze: When James musters the hooker being sent to his room, the camera pans down her figure, simulating James Eating the Eye Candy.
  • Match Cut: From the judge banging his gavel as he sentences James to prison, to a workman with a hammer pounding the shackles on James's leg closed.
  • Miscarriage of Justice: First James is imprisoned for 10 years for a crime he was forced into committing. Then the verbal promise concerning the pardon is broken twice.
  • Moving the Goalposts: First they promise to pardon Allen after 90 days, then 1 year, but it becomes apparent they will never let him go.
  • No Communities Were Harmed: The film is based on the autobiographical book by Robert E. Burns entitled I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang!, published in 1930. The title was changed so as not to offend anyone from Georgia, and the state Allen escapes from is never named (the Travel Montage of his return fades out over Kentucky). Still, the film outraged the Georgia authorities so much that they refused to let the book's author off until 1945.
  • Police Are Useless: A police officer is once still entering a barber shop, where the recently escaped fugitive James Allen is getting a haircut. The officer perfectly describes his appearance and yet somehow doesn't recognize him, meaning he just let the culprit get away.
  • Poverty Food: The prison inmates get a disgusting dish of grease, fried dough, pig fat and sorghum to eat, day in and day out, which Jim has a hard time adjusting to.
  • Pursue the Dream Job: Jim wants to be an engineer instead of a clerk (the Army Corps of Engineers taught him the basics) and he works hard to achieve that goal, both before his first arrest and after his first escape.
  • Reed Snorkel: James effects his first escape by submerging himself in a pond and breathing through a reed until the guards and their dogs pass by. One of the guards wades into the pond and nearly walks into him.
  • Returning War Vet: James fought in World War I, and not far into the film, he's riding the rails looking for any kind of employment. It often gets overshadowed by the film's penal reform themes, but this movie also deals with how American war vets had been abandoned by the government.
  • Scary Black Man: The big intimidating black inmate who turns out to be quite helpful.
  • Shadow Discretion Shot: The warden's whipping the prisoners' backs is depicted in shadow on a wall.
  • She Is All Grown Up: James notices this about Linda when he returns to his hometown.
  • Sdrawkcab Alias: Or a version of it, anyway. Allen just switches his first and last names around.
    Recruiter: Name?
    Allen: Allen.
    Recruiter: That your first or last name?
    Allen: La— uh, first. Last name is James.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: Pete, the man who offers James a hamburger at a diner and turns out to be a burglar, dies after less than five minutes of screentime, and yet you can thank him for James Allen getting falsely accused of murder, going to prison, and slowly turning to a fugitive and a thief.
  • Spinning Paper: There is a newspaper headline montage with the public's reaction to James facing extradition.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: James and Helen, who part forever at the end.
  • A Taste of the Lash: Prisoners are routinely whipped for getting out of line or not working hard enough.
  • Too Dumb to Live: The old inmate whom James escapes with. He leans out of the truck to observe the pursuers who are wildly shooting at them. Of course he gets hit by a bullet.
  • Travel Montage: As Allen travels for work, and later when he escapes and returns to the chain gang, scenes of passenger trains are superimposed over map shots. The map doesn't specify where the prison camp is beyond the Deep South, merely fading out as it passes over Kentucky.
  • Travelling Salesman Montage: Around the beginning, there's a montage of James travelling America looking for a job.
  • Two First Names: James and Allen are both reasonable names for a person. When James escapes the first time, the pseudonym he adopts is just his first and last names swapped around.
  • Wham Line: "I steal."
  • What Are You in For?: James is asked this by a fellow inmate but refuses to answer in full, though his sardonic reply is true enough—because he was gazing hungrily at the food, he didn't notice his new friend pull a gun until it was too late.
    Inmate: What are you taking the rap for?
    Allen: For looking at a hamburger.
  • Where the Hell Is Springfield?: While Robert Elliott Burns' real-life incarceration took place in Georgia, and his book (on which the film was based) was titled I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang!, the state is never named in the film. This did not stop numerous lawsuits being filed against the filmmakers by various Georgia prison officials, the film being banned in Georgia, or the studio head and the director of the film being threatened with firsthand experience on a chain gang if they ever set foot in Georgia.
  • Woman Scorned: Allen's wife takes a terrible revenge on him.
  • Working on the Chain Gang: The Movie.