(On Cable TV, June 2019) As much as I like using movies to point out the similarities between past decade and modern times, there are times when films will remind you that the past was something else entirely. It’s bad enough that I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang highlights that there was such a thing as chain gangs, or “a group of prisoners chained together to perform menial or physically challenging work as a form of punishment” as Wikipedia bloodlessly puts it. The barbaric reality on the ground was far more horrific, and this 1930s prison melodrama clearly has a provocative intention in highlighting the inhumanity of southern state’s legal systems: as with many other 1930s prison movies, this one carries the spirit of reform. The plotting is an upsetting blend of prison escape thriller and uplifting by-the-bootstrap melodrama, as our likable protagonist (another great Paul Muni performance) ends up in a chain gang, escapes, is tricked back into another one and escapes again, forever condemned to live in the underworld. Director Mervyn Leroy has a sure hand on his material, making interesting choices on how to portray elapsed time for a multi-decade story, taking us through WW1 and Depression-era America with its day labourers and relaxed moral code. The Pre-Code nature of the film feels vigorous here, being far more suggestive than later movies (what is she doing in his room … oh) and character behaviour (such as spouses cheating on each other) that would be nearly eliminated from moviemaking a few years later. Chain gangs aren’t the least of the film’s dated nature—hearing a female character bluntly state “I’m free, white and 21” had me spending a significant amount of time going down a rabbit hole of 1930s slang that really hasn’t aged well at all. Perhaps the biggest shock of the film comes at the very end, which comes abruptly and refuses us any comfort after the triumphant escape that precedes it—you can see here a very early glimmer of the moral fatalism that would later come to dominate American film noir and unsettle audiences. Despite a few misfires (such as uninteresting female characters), I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang easily fulfills the expectations set by its exploitative title, and has us carefully measuring the distance between ourselves and bad ideas of the past.