For Reel

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)
March 1, 2012, 10:50 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Concluding with one of the most haunting shots in all of American cinema, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is one of the great achievements of the pre-Code era – a problem picture so stirring that it actualized social change. Beyond memorably depicting the barbaric chain gangs of the American south in the early 20th century, it is one of the great pictures about a country failing its war veterans. Among its many lasting images, few are more silently devastating than a box of war medals in a pawn shop. Writers Brown Holmes and Howard J. Green nimbly condense the Robert Elliott Burns autobiography of the same title to ninety minutes and impressively represent the concision and effectiveness of well-executed Hollywood storytelling. The script is wisely understated – take, for instance, the poetic image of the fugitive Paul Muni blowing up the bridge that he had constructed, or the simple line in which it is revealed that the cost of Muni’s lawyer is significantly higher than what it had cost the state to search for him. Whereas many films of this period faced certain scorn for their levels of violence and sexuality, Chain Gang is a scathing indictment of not only the treatment of prisoners, but of the unjust law system that serves its institutions over the individuals.

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