Home Video Hovel- They Made Me a Fugitive, by David Bax

Alberto Cavalcanti’s They Made Me a Fugitive is most often, not to mention correctly, referred to as a British noir. The noir part is easy to explain as it involves a generally good guy getting involved with some sort of criminal activity and things becoming pretty much unpleasant for him. The British part is pretty self-explanatory too. The film takes place there. Yet there’s more to it than that. Noir is an America film genre with a French name. So what, apart from setting, makes this one British?

These kinds of films were born out of an America reemerging into affluence but still carrying scars of the depression. The dissonance between those two things and a country that was trying to hide the latter in favor of the former led to a streak of cynicism that found its expression in the cinema. The genre was able to continue largely due to World War II, the horrors of which – from the battlefield to the concentration camps – came at the same time that the white picket fence suburban dream was ascendant. Britain fought that war as well but had even more plaguing it in the aftermath than the thoughts of far-afield atrocities. Despite being on the winning side, England was a country that bore the destruction of bombings and had an economy in decline. They had more than enough cause for disillusionment. What sets They Made Me a Fugitive apart from its American contemporaries and forebears is an even more pronounced cynicism, not just on the part of the film but in the characters themselves. Noir protagonists in the U.S. have dreams of upward mobility achieved through downward morality. The criminals in Cavalcanti’s film are more fatalistic.

Illustrating this point is the fact that our lead, Clem Morgan (Trevor Howard), a war veteran, joins a criminal enterprise not to get rich so much as because he’s bored. However, he’s not totally morally bankrupt – he is our hero, after all – and his disapproval of the outfit’s involvement in the drug trade gets him framed for the murder of a policeman and sent to jail. He escapes, becoming the fugitive of the title, and guns for revenge on the man who set him up, a gangster named Narcy (Griffith Jones, fantastic) by teaming up with Narcy’s scorned ex-girlfriend, Sally (Sally Gray).

The screenplay, by Noel Langley (adapting Jackson Budd’s novel A Convict Has Escaped) brings with it more slight differences from similar American stories. While the dialogue on these shores was definitely hard-boiled, Langley adds a larger dose of bitter humor to the constant threats with bits of speech like, “I’m not naming names but watch where my eyes rest.” An early scene in which Narcy scolds a subordinate for having a “nasty mind” is quietly hilarious because we know, as does Narcy, that his mind is just as mean-spirited. It’s also clear that he doesn’t actually give a damn what goes on in his henchman’s brain. He’s just going through the motions for a spot of fun.

Kino previously released this film on VHS and that version had wonderful picture and sound quality, for the format. The new Blu-ray only enhances the aesthetic experience. The 1.33 compositions of cinematographer Otto Heller (who would later lens the breathtaking Peeping Tom) are crisp in their delineations of space and depth, echoed in the precise lines of the sharp suits and coats worn by the cast. And the sequence of guards and cops charging off into the fog after the escaped prisoner is simply beautiful.

Hopefully, a thrilling movie gorgeously presented will be enough to sate potential buyers, since special features are absent. But, trust me, it’s enough.

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