Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Neglected Gem # 107: They Made Me a Fugitive (1947)

Sally Gray and Trevor Howard in They Made Me a Fugitive (1947).

Sometimes serendipity allows you to come across a movie you might otherwise never have known about. That was what happened earlier this year when I was doing some research for a class I was teaching on American film noir. One article I read mentioned significant noirs from other countries, including a 1947 British film I was utterly unfamiliar with entitled They Made Me a Fugitive. I didn’t use that movie for my lecture but shortly afterwards I came across a DVD of it at my local library and snapped it up, believing I was meant to see it. Good thing I did, because even among the generally high quality of the genre, They Made Me a Fugitive stands out.

Based on the novel A Convict Has Escaped by Jackson Budd – I suspect the film’s title change was meant to evoke the classic 1932 Paul Muni film I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, also about an unjustly accused man – They Made Me a Fugitive played in the U.S, under yet another (weak) title, I Became a Criminal. It begins strongly when Clem Morgan (Trevor Howard), an unemployed ex-air force veteran, is enticed into the criminal underworld and joins up with a gang led by the psychopathic Narcissus, known to all as Narcy (Griffith Jones). In austerity-ridden post-war England, supplies of everything from nylons to whiskey are scarce and the gang, which operates out of a funeral parlour, is making a good living on the black market. But when Clem objects to their dealing in drugs, and announces he will leave the group after one last job, events conspire to work against him: framed by Narcy, he ends up imprisoned for manslaughter of a cop. And then he escapes.

Unlike most noir, which is usually tightly plotted, They Made Me a Fugitive offers instead an appealing, unconventional looseness to the proceedings. (Noel Langley who wrote the screenplay for the movie, also worked as a script writer for The Wizard of Oz [1939], which, of course, has its share of dark moments.) The film spends much time on Clem’s adventures on the lam, most provocatively when a seeming good Samaritan puts him up for the night, only to demand he kill her husband for her. He refuses but is framed for that killing anyway, which adds further urgency when he returns to London, bent on revenge against Narcy. There, too, the movie refuses to play out as expected, resulting in an uncompromising, even grim, ending that offers no solace to Clem.

Howard, looking much older than the 29-year-old character he is supposed to be playing – though he was only in his early thirties when he made the film – is riveting: he plays Clem as a desperate, angry and dismissive man who doesn’t engage the audience’s sympathies even when he is at his most put-upon. And Jones’s Narcy is one of the more original and enticing villains to appear on screen. (You actually feel more sympathy for him, at times, then you do for Clem.)

Trevor Howard and Griffith Jones in They Made Me a Fugitive.

But in many ways, it is the city of London that is the real star of the film. Director Alberto Cavalcanti (credited just as Cavalcanti), best known for one of the episodes in the British horror omnibus Dead of Night (1945), shot the film in many bombed-out and not-yet-rebuilt parts of Soho, giving the movie a startlingly realistic and melancholy sheen, aided immeasurably by Otto Heller’s stark but ravishing cinematography. (Carol Reed’s The Third Man, from 1949, did the same for Vienna but it was a glossier, shinier movie.) This London is down at its heels and still at war, although now within itself and not with any external enemies. And the citizens who survived World War Two now expect to live large, not caring where the goodies come from; the same can be said for ex-soldiers like Clem, now cast adrift in society. It’s a pretty cynical but honest portrait, and perhaps a harbinger of the '60s British ‘kitchen sink’ dramas (Billy Liar, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, etc.) yet to come. Cavlcanti also shoots the drama in a jagged, off-kilter way, complete with odd camera angles, that ups the suspense considerably; I wonder if Samuel Fuller (Pickup on South Street, 1953; The Crimson Kimono, 1959) knew of this film as his work is reminiscent of it, though his is a heavy-handed, obvious iteration of Cavalcanti’s vision.

I should add that a welcome strain of quintessentially, quirky British humour runs throughout They Made Me a Fugitive, as with Aggie (Mary Merrall), an old lady on the gang’s fringes who wittily offers up wry commentary on whatever the criminals are up to. (She'd have been a perfect fit in the 1955 brilliant caper comedy The Ladykillers.) And there’s one memorably funny discussion of why one of the gang refuses to avail himself of guns during the commission of his crimes that reminds you that this is definitely not an American film noir, where guns are ubiquitous and their use would never be debated or commented upon.

There are a few problems with the story. Clem’s disillusionment with Narcy and his minions happens too quickly; we barely get a sense of how the gang operates day to day before they turn on Clem. And the film abruptly drops his girlfriend Ellie (Eve Ashley), who leaves him for Narcy when he is jailed, out of the picture. (The strong presence of Narcy’s tough but glamourous girlfriend Sally, played by Sally Gray, who feels guilty about what was done to Clem and tries to help him, alleviates that omission somewhat.) But mostly, They Made Me a Fugitive keeps you guessing as to where it will go and rarely takes the predicable path. It’s a different kettle of fish indeed.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where on October 6 he will be starting to teach a course on fact based movies and why they often take liberties with history. He also began lecturing on Israeli cinema in London, Ontario on Sept. 5.

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