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"I may be a crook, but not that sort of crook."-Clem Morgan (Trevor Howard).
They Made Me a Fugitive (1947) may be a movie about crooks, but it's more than a gangster picture. It's a bona fide British-made film noir and features the fine, stylized direction of Alberto Cavalcanti, from a screenplay written by Noel Langley and based on the novel A Convict Has Escaped by Jackson Budd. Ex-RAF pilot Clem Morgan is in desperate need of another war, or at least another diversion. He spends his time getting drunk and sinking into the oblivion of an uncertain future. More out of pure boredom than anything, Clem agrees to throw his lot in with a group of underworld figures, led by the suave, quick-tempered mastermind, Narcy (Griffith Jones), which is short for Narcissus. The gang operates out of a mortuary, a front that carries implications for future customers that just might come their way in a pine box, courtesy of the gang's own violent enterprises. But Clem balks at the gang's new direction: the peddling of dope. Clem may be partial to making a buck via a left-handed form of human endeavor, to borrow a phrase from The Asphalt Jungle (1950), but he draws the line somewhere, and the drug trade crosses it. Clem is accused of being a bit of a snob, but Narcy seemingly agrees to Clem's reservations and promises not to involve him in a drug transaction. Then Narcy double-crosses Clem, and pins the killing of a bobbie on him. Clem is sent away for manslaughter, but he's not out of the picture for good...Vengeance simmers.
The look and feel of They Made Me a Fugitive certainly influenced the British crime thrillers of the 1970s-from Get Carter (1971) to The Long Good Friday (1980)-but it also informs much of the output of British crime films from the last 15 years, particularly the works of Guy Ritchie and Matthew Vaughn. This line of influence is nowhere more noticeable than in the startling violence that pervades They Made Me a Fugitive. In one scene, Narcy, his face grotesquely reflected in a mirror, savagely beats a woman down to the floor, then kicks her repeatedly in the stomach. Editor Margery Saunders increases the violent tension with up-tempo and off-kilter cuts; when the woman, Sally (Sally Gray), falls bloodied to the floor, there's a quick shot of her eyes opening in terror as she realizes what she'll suffer next under Narcy's sadism. Narcy's monstrous, psychopathic actions, coupled with his steady and deliberate way of speaking and acting might have influenced the creation of Ben Kingsley's nearly-satanic gangster Don Logan in Sexy Beast (2000).
The letting of blood isn't confined just to Narcy and his brood though; once Clem escapes from prison (no spoiler here; it's right there in the title), he hides out temporarily in the house belonging to a woman and her drunken husband. While Clem takes a breather, the woman makes an offer that Clem, once again, must refuse because it crosses his personal code: she wants him to kill her husband, reasoning that one more murder on the head of a convict couldn't possibly matter. After Clem exits the house in a swirl of hurry, the woman decides to take matters and unloads the pistol, point blank, into her husband in a fit of firearm fury that hadn't been seen since Bette Davis killed the man she loved in The Letter (1940).
Aside from the violence men and women commit against each other, there's a rough and nihilistic quality to They Made Me a Fugitive that is a quality of noir as much as it is a reflection of the postwar malaise that this film perfectly captures. During a fistfight in the backroom of the mortuary, coffins piled up high, presumably waiting to be used for the sacred burial of the human form, are instead used as weapons and springboards in which to stage the fight. It's a brilliantly staged fight scene that doesn't portray the participants as impervious to bruising body blows. Clem, Narcy and the rest bleed, sweat, pant, and fall over exhausted, death close by; above the fray a sign says, "It's Later Than You Think", and is soon sent crashing to the floor. The whole scene is echoed in the celebrated mannequin warehouse tussle in Stanley Kubrick's Killer's Kiss (1955). And watch how Clem gives chase after Narcy up to the rooftop; instead of climbing a latter and opening the skylight, Clem crashes through it, head first. It is a startling and real choice by a desperate and raging character.
Vivienne Knight, the writer of Trevor Howard's authorized biography, dismissed They Made Me a Fugitive as "a somewhat squalid thriller." While it is a B-movie thriller through and through, the Brit noir overcomes its genre and budgetary limitations with outstanding work on both sides of the camera. Cavalcanti, who began his career making avant garde silent films in France, brings a highly stylized eye that is indebted to French poetic realism, as seen in films like Le Quai des Brumes (1938) and Le Jour Se Leve (1939). Calling the shots directly behind the camera was Czech-born cinematographer Otto Heller, whose schooling in the traditions of German Expressionism brought an intense visual style that is more in keeping with the traditional noir style. (Heller would later shoot Michael Powell's disturbing 1960 psychological thriller, Peeping Tom.)
They Made Me a Fugitive was made for Nat Bronsten's Alliance Company, the offspring of a short-lived alliance between RKO and the Rank Organization. Screenwriter Noel Langley, who was one of the writers responsible for adapting The Wizard of Oz (1939), did not retain much from the original novel, just the basic premise of an escaped convict on a trail of vengeance against those who set him up. Langley injected several snatches of hardboiled dialogue into the film that are not to be missed. When asked how he escaped from Germany during the war, Clem answers, "With a beer bottle. It's alright...it was empty." And when a policeman surveys the broken, bleeding bodies after an epic fight, he growls, "Okay, scrape 'em up." But the dialogue would just be hardboiled prose without the excellent cast. Trevor Howard, in his biggest role since Brief Encounter (1946), gives Clem a world-weary ambivalence that is upset only when he's wronged and forced into a losing corner. Howard is an excellent noir protagonist, equaled by Griffith Jones' sleazy psychopath, Narcy. Also padding out the cast is Sally Gray, Eve Ashley, and in a bit part as Fidgetty Phil, Peter Bull, long before he was picking fights in the war room in Dr. Strangelove (1964).
Producers: N.A. Bronsten, Nat A. Bronsten
Director: Alberto Cavalcanti
Screenplay: Noel Langley; Jackson Budd (novel "A Convict Has Escaped")
Cinematography: Otto Heller
Art Direction: A. Mazzei
Music: Marius Francois Gaillard
Film Editing: Margery Saunders
Cast: Sally Gray (Sally Connor), Trevor Howard (George Clement 'Clem' Morgan), Griffith Jones (Narcy), Renee Ray (Cora), Mary Merrall (Aggie), Charles Farrell (Curley), Michael Brennan (Jim), Jack McNaughton (Soapy), Cyril Smith (Bert), John Penrose (Shawney), Eve Ashley (Ellen), Phyliss Robins (Olga), Bill O'Connor (Bill), Maurice Denham (Mr. Fenshaw), Vida Hope (Mrs. Fenshawe).
by Scott McGee