Starring: Paul Muni, Glenda Farrell, Preston Foster, Helen Vinson
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Adapted from the autobiography of Robert E Burns, this film is the story of James Allen (Muni), a man wrongly convicted of a crime, who is sent to work in the chain gangs in the American South. The conditions and the cruel prison guard practices are appalling, and he manages to escape, and attempts to build a life before being betrayed.
Because it’s based on true events, it’s a film that is profoundly moving. The events and circumstances of the film show the awful truth of a prison system that was inhumane and ignorant. It’s a message film, that talked about much needed social change, but manages to not be full of trite or preachy plot points or dialogue.
This is largely down to the lead. Paul Muni had recently played Scarface, but here he gives a powerful and moving performance of an innocent man on the run. He feels very real and likable, and you want to see him get away, but the justice system feels like an inexorable machine. I feel like a lot of films from the 30’s managed to play on the emotions, but they’re often very funny or sharply incisive. Here we see a film that feels quite different, as it takes a true story and shows us a very real injustice and a true story. It’s a film that may upset what you think you know about films from this era.
This film is one of the earliest examples of a prison or prison break film, and many of the scenes first seen here became staples of the genre. The striped uniforms, the guards hunting escapees with dogs, it’s all here. It’s also referenced and homaged in the Coen Brothers film O Brother Where Art Thou? To me, it feels like something special, and if you love the prison or escape narrative, this one is a must see. Without giving away the ending of the film, I’d like to let you know that after the film came out, Robert E Burns sentence was commuted to time served, based on public support for him. Which is a happy ending, really.
See It If: you love prison films, this is the film that started them. It’s also a really moving true story.