"I Steal!": The Unflinching "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang"

Paul Muni begins 1932's "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang" in an Army uniform and ends it in the uniform of the forgotten man of the depression -- unshaven, battered hat, threadbare coat, wrinkled trousers, probably the slight smell of sweat and cigarettes. He has a wild look in his eyes, as he should -- he's just escaped from a chain gang for a second time and has permitted himself just one final moment with Helen (Helen Vinson), the woman he loves:

From the darkness: "I steal!"

The ending is as abrupt and as unflinching as the rest of "I Am a Fugitive." Eighty years after its release, the film remains a true classic that is carried by the power of its true story, by Muni's performance and by Mervyn LeRoy's swift and sure direction.

The movie begins as James Allen, played by Muni, comes home after World War I. He's greeted by his adoring mother and ineffectual brother, a pompous clergymen whose faith will be absolutely no help to Allen as he faces life's cruelty and challenges.

Walking away from a factory job that will keep him close to home, Allen sets out to work in construction and makes his way across the country. When he is reluctantly involved in a robbery, he is given the harshest sentence possible -- years on a chain gang. (In Georgia, but Warner Bros. didn't want to risk any lawsuits, so that state is unnamed.)

The inhuman conditions Burns faces on the gang leads to his first escape, a terrific piece of kinetic storytelling:

Then it's off to Chicago, where Allen makes a prosperous life as a builder-contractor, until he is undone by the mercenary Marie, played by one of the best of the tough Warner dames, Glenda Farrell. She finds out about Allen's past, courtesy of a letter from the clergyman brother, and blackmails Allen into marriage. When he tries to divorce her to marry Helen, who he really loves, Marie turns stool pigeon. Allen strikes a deal with the authorities -- he'll return to the work camp for a few months, followed by a quiet release.

But after Allen has worked on the chain gang for a year, the state goes back on its word. Watch how Muni plays it, as a man crumbling apart from the inside:

"I Am a Fugitive" has the grittiness we expect from a pre-code Warner film; Allen's safe haven after his escape is in a bawdy house, where he spends the evening with a prostitute (Noel Francis). In another scene, the broke Allen tries to hock the medals he received in the war -- but when he goes to a pawnshop, the broker shows him a box full of medals he's gotten from other veterans. And the beatings and whippings Allen suffers on the gang still seem painfully real.

As a result of the movie, Robert Burns, the real-life James Allen, was pardoned in 1933. And though Muni would go on to deliver award-winning performances, he did little else that matches his vivid portrayal in this film.  

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