Though strong in many facets, my biggest issue with Mervyn LeRoy’s I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang is that its primary turning points are built on shaky premises. First, when James Allen (a superb Paul Muni) is wrongly convicted of robbery and sent off to serve a seven-year sentence in a chain gang, it seems like a stretch to believe that he would been so definitively convicted. The actual criminal, who was killed while trying to make a run for it, attempted to use Allen as a prop right in front of the diner owner’s face. Allen clearly resists helping the robber, doing so only because a gun is pointed squarely in his face. That the owner wouldn’t have explained to the cops that there was no evidence the two were together—they came at different times—is fairly ludicrous, even if Allen did instinctively run out of fear once the robber was shot.
Secondly, when Allen, who had escaped, settled elsewhere, and worked his way up the ladder to fulfilling his lifelong post-war dream of becoming a successful engineer, is fingered and his true identity revealed, the subsequence PR battle and conflicting views on whether the “reformed” Allen should be sent back to finish his time or be set free is deftly handled by LeRoy, illustrating the moral conundrum for those not in the know. But when the lawyers hash out a compromise, it’s apparently not put in writing, and Allen turns himself in based on something with no legal backing, and winds up serving out a long stretch of his term as appeal after appeal is denied. This seems even more absurd than the first chink: would Allen, now a powerful man with powerful friends and powerful connections, really agree to serve 90 days without ironclad assurance that he’d be out afterwards, no questions asked? It’s a shame that these narrative implausibilities detract from an otherwise engaging, interesting picture: LeRoy’s depiction of the brutality of the chain gangs makes one question their constitutionality and place, his compositions are rich and full, and Muni injects Allen with passion, ambition, frustration and optimism all in one at various times. The shadowy final shot is extremely memorable. There’s enough here to make I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang worthwhile, but its problems are deep enough to keep it a long way from sniffing greatness. It’s too flawed a work to merit such high praise.