"If you want to send a message, use Western Union", said somebody, famously - Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, and Frank Capra are the most common sources, so it's probably none of them - but that's advice that was already long-abandoned before it was ever spoken. The fact is, filmmakers, particularly Hollywood filmmakers well aware of how much their product was typically regarded as the worst kind of social dreck, have always looooovvvvveed sending messages. It's an easy way to steal some gravitas and act like your tawdriness is in fact ennobling.

I bring this up because we are now face to face with one of the more cunning and compelling message movies that has ever come down the pike, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang by Warner Bros., a studio that made cloaking shabby shockers in a cloak of respectability by claiming they had a social lesson into an art form. Not to mention that it stars Paul Muni, an actor who, as the '30s would progress, would become the patron saint of gloppy, unwatchably prestigious Serious Films like The Story of Louis Pasteur and The Good Earth. In 1932, though, he still hadn't picked up the airless, withdrawn tics and techniques that would eventually win him an Oscar, and was still interested in just playing a character in a grubby little movie, and playing him as effectively and directly as possible - it was the same year as Muni's other best performance, as the lead in the genre-defining gangster film Scarface. Furthermore, the film was directed by Mervyn LeRoy, whose name would also become synonymous with safely rounded-off, handsomely dull filmmaking: I Am a Fugitive was the second of seven LeRoy films that would end up with Best Picture Oscar nominations, a gigantic number in any era, and most of those future nominations would be for exactly the kind of posh, drearily respectable movies that the phrase "major Oscar player" connotes to the most cynical among us.

Despite being a hothouse for everything that would thus soon become unendurable about message movies, prestige movies, and Hollywood movies generally, I Am a Fugitive is far more of a grimy thriller than it is an airy series of emphatic statements on society and righteousness and so on. It's a moody, nasty-minded crime movie full of rage and anchored by some deep, moody visuals with harsh contrasts to sum up the stark world of the narrative. It's practically a proto-noir in some respects, particularly in its pulverising, profoundly anti-subtle final shot, and I genuinely don't know where that could possibly have come from - Warner didn't gobble up German immigrants like some of the other studios, so there's little chance of direct Expressionist influence. Cinematographer Sol Polito, born in Sicily and active in American cinema since before Hollywood was Hollywood, was the driving influence behind the distinctive Warner look of the era, with hard, crisp lighting and strong blacks (basically, the precise opposite of the soft, glamorising look at MGM), and following this film, dominating chiaroscuro effects would become a key tool in the Warner handbook as well; but I do not know precisely wither came the chiaroscuro in the first place.

Whatever, it's a phenomenal fit for the material, which is somewhat based on reality: homecoming WWI vet James Allen (Muni) - I always think of this as film actively about the Depression, but almost all of it takes place in the '20s - finds that he can't fit in with the ordinary life of workaday laborers, having gotten his fill of orders and hierarchy in the war. So he wanders off to find work in construction, and crawl his way up to his dream of becoming an engineer. Jobs being scarce, he becomes more and more desperate, but he still never turns to crime or anything like it; it's only when he crosses paths with another tramp who ropes him in as the unwitting accomplice to a diner robbery that Allen ends up arrested and slapped with the severe sentence of ten years on a chain gang in a nameless southern state. The living hell of the chain gang, made worse by his knowledge that he's innocent of the crime that landed him there, is too much for Allen to bear, so he makes the spectacularly dangerous choice to break out. Surprisingly, he succeeds, making it all the way to Chicago, where he enjoys a fast rise to become a well-regarded civil engineer. He's also picked up a blackmailing wife in the form of the venal Marie (Glenda Farrell), who uses her knowledge of his past to keep him from piping up as she spends his money with abandon and carries on affair after affair. Eventually, when he tries to throw her off to be with his own lover, Helen (Helen Vinson), she calls the cops on him and he ends up back on the chain gang, with even worse conditions ahead of him than before. And it is now that he becomes really desperate.

As a story about the arbitrary nature of law enforcement and the way that punitive measures in prison only serve to make worse monsters of the men they're trying to rehabilitate, I Am a Fugitive has a viciousness and overt disrespect for Proper Authority that's legitimately shocking for a Hollywood studio picture of its vintage; but it helps to remember that the legendary Pre-Code Era isn't just about more onscreen sex and violence, but about political frankness as well. Arguments could be put forth that would have been uncomfortably radical just a couple of years later, and I Am a Fugitive was rigorous enough in its indictment of the brutal system of the chain gang to make LeRoy persona non grata in Georgia (where the true story of Robert Elliott Burns, whose autobiography inspired the film, took place) for some years after. The real kicker is that final scene, where Allen is swallowed up by darkness, literal and moral, as his horror of the inhuman treatment of the chain gang has finally turned him into the criminal that he was accused of being, but there's really not a single point at which the film isn't saturated in a cold disgust for the casual abuse and cruelty of humans towards other humans. The blunt cinematography is a major part of that; so is Muni's Oscar-nominated performance, a rasping, anxious, frustrated embodiment of the character without any pleading for sympathy or obvious saintly turns. Muni's Allen isn't a worthy focus for the film's political message because he's a human being endowed with basic dignity and a right to freedom; it's because he's a haunted, hunted animal whose shell-shocked expressions communicate with uncomfortable directness the physical torments that, even in '32, Hollywood filmmakers still had to shy away from depicting.

LeRoy's direction is sinewy and snug; the script, credited to Howard J. Green and Brown Holmes, boils away any sentiment and romance - the closest to melodrama that the film ever comes is in the subplot with Helen, and she's barely in the film at all. There is little "artistry", as such; the single most crafty moment dissolves from the banging of a judge's gavel to the clang of a hammer on rock at the chain gang. It is one of the quintessential pre-code Warner films, maybe even the best example of the studio's style in those days, hard and blunt. I wonder if it's perhaps a little disingenuous about race; Warner Bros. was the most racially progressive studio by far at the time, but even there, a story about the brutality of the prison system in the South could make only fleeting, elliptical glances in the direction of the experience of black chain gang members. I wonder, too, if it's not somewhat too crisp and efficient in its storytelling for its own good; like it's 81-years-later descendant in the narrow genre of "innocent man ends up in a force labor situation, with a story that explodes the cruelty of that situation", 12 Years a Slave, the film states the passage of time without actually making it felt (Muni's three-day stubble certainly doesn't make us feel the weight of years passing).

In the grand scheme, though, these are little problems. It's still an awfully good movie; maybe a bit too schematic to be truly great, but the fact that the movie communicates its themes so clearly and so angrily without ever feeling didactic is a huge point in its favor, and Muni's visceral performance carries it along not matter how episodic any given passage of the screenplay feels. The film, at any rate, is frequently credited with being a major contributing factor to the abolition of chain gangs; not many message films can ever claim to have such direct evidence that their message was heeded, and that alone tells us something about the film's brutal impact.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1932
-Ernst Lubitsch directs the elegantly smutty Trouble in Paradise
-MGM throws all of its biggest stars into one megaproduction, inventing a genre with Grand Hotel
-Walt Disney's Silly Symphony Flowers and Trees is the first project created in the 3-strip Technicolor process

Elswhere in world cinema in 1932
-Raymond Bernard directs the powerful, underseen WWI drama Wooden Crosses in France
-Japanese director Ozu Yasujiro makes the family comedy I Was Born, But..., the earliest of his films which remains generally known
-Carl Theodor Dreyer's dreamy horror film Vampyr, a Germany-French coproduction, is released in three different languages, of which the English version is now lost