Oct. 21, 2009

They Made Me a Fugitive (1947)
Grade: 81/100

Director: Alberto Cavalcanti
Stars: Trevor Howard, Griffith Jones, Sally Gray

What it's about. This British gangster film noir stars Trevor Howard as Clem, a former RAF war hero who, out of boredom, becomes a partner in crime with heinous black market smuggler Narcy (Griffith Jones). A power struggle soon ensues, which results in Narcy double-crossing Clem by framing him for the murder of a policeman.

Clem escapes from prison, and despite a countrywide manhunt, inevitably tracks down Narcy and his henchman in the finale. In the meantime, he is given a girlfriend, hottie Sally Gray. A subplot involves the fate of hapless gang member Soapy (Jack McNaughton) and his girlfriend Cora (René Ray).

How others will see it. Crime dramas have a wide audience, and fans of the genre will marvel at the tough-guy posturing and lingo in this movie. The only letdown is first-billed Sally Gray, a beautiful blonde but burdened with an incredible character. She becomes an ally of outlaw Trevor Howard, predictably falling in love with him and whining piteously on his behalf by film's end.

How I felt about it. England, like America, had a Production Code in effect in 1947. A movie such as the present film is exactly the sort that the Code was designed to constrain. And indeed, all the hard-core criminals get what is coming to them, with the exception of the tense housewife (Vida Hope) bent on killing her addlepated husband (Maurice Denham).

Nonetheless, Clem is more hero than anti-hero, despite committing a lengthy series of crimes throughout the film. Which is why it is all the more curious that his role is played by Trevor Howard, one of the biggest British moviestars of the day (They Made Me a Fugitive was made two years after Brief Encounter, and two years before The Third Man, perhaps Howard's best and two most important films).

Howard makes little attempt to be likeable. In his first scene, he has an entire conversation with a cigarette dangling up and down from his mouth. Often, his face is unshaven. His attitude is equally uncharacteristic. He begins as a cocky war hero who has turned to black market smuggling out of boredom. He ends the film as a desperate prison escapee presumably seeking to murder the man who framed him. In between, he berates a beautiful woman who has taken the time to visit him in prison. But at least there are things he won't do, such as shoot useless husbands, or allow bobbies to be run over. Even when refusal to kill, or be a party to murder, gets him framed for the crime anyway.

Besides Howard's edgy performance, there is much for the crime genre fan to enjoy. The hoods exchange wonderful Cockney-style slang and putdowns. Especially entertaining is Aggie (Mary Merrall), a middle-aged to elderly woman who looks like a mark but is as tough as nails.

The credit for all this belongs principally to two men. The first is the writer, Noel Langley, best known for adapting the screenplays of two classic novels in The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Scrooge (1951). The second man of importance is director Alberto Cavalcanti, who had earlier made the memorable British "Twilight Zone"-styled movie Dead of Night (1945). Unluckily for both Cavalcanti and his employer, Ealing Studios, the two had a falling out, and Cavalcanti ended his once-promising career making obscure films in Brazil, East Germany, and wherever else he could find work.