Director: Alberto Cavalcanti
For about ten years after the end of World War II, until the mid-1950s, the influence of film noir in the American film industry was pervasive. Every year dozens of films were made in the genre, and even pictures not in the genre were influenced by the visual style and the attitude of film noir. Although many British crime films were made in this period, few that I've seen come as close to the look and spirit of postwar American film noir as Alberto Cavalcanti's They Made Me a Fugitive (released in the US in 1948 as I Became a Criminal).
In one of his earliest film roles, Trevor Howard plays Clem Morgan, a recently discharged Royal Air Force pilot having trouble adjusting to the routine of civilian life after the daily risk of being a wartime flier. So when he is recruited by a small-time London gang leader involved in the postwar black market, Clem eagerly accepts to put a bit of excitement and danger back in his life. The gang leader, Narcy, short for Narcissus (Griffith Jones), is a ruthless Cockney looking for the upper-class Clem to add a bit of cachet to the gang. Working out of an undertaker's office, the gang specializes in the usual postwar black market items like cigarettes and nylon stockings, smuggled into their headquarters in coffins.
When Clem discovers that Narcy is smuggling drugs as well and threatens to leave the gang, Narcy promises to stop this, but it's clear that he resents Clem's challenge to his power. This, combined with Narcy's interest in Clem's posh, slutty girl friend, seals Clem's fate. Framed by Narcy during a robbery in which a policeman is killed, Clem is convicted and sent to prison. But he manages to escape and make his way back to London in search of the one gang member who can prove his innocence. After a series of misadventures, he hooks up with Narcy's former girl friend, a showgirl named Sally Connor (Sally Gray) who, bitter about being dumped by Narcy, agrees to help Clem. While simultaneously avoiding both the police and the vicious Narcy, Clem and Sally gradually find themselves attracted to each other.
The reason French film critics called this type of picture film noir is the pervasive darkness of the world it depicts, a darkness that extends far beyond the predominance of nighttime scenes, the night clubs, the criminal activities, the treacherous urban settings, and the underworld milieu typical of the genre. They Made Me a Fugitive certainly has these—along with the Expressionist-inflected cinematography, courtesy of the Prague-born Otto Heller, and the striking editing of the great film noirs—and more. Like the best film noirs, it has a sense that the world is a place where corruption is endemic, a place where people are ruled by self-interest and where nobility, morality, and any kind of ethical behavior are rare commodities indeed. There are no heroes in this world, with its relentlessly bleak view of human nature. Even the people the fugitive Clem encounters on his way to London turn out to be selfish manipulators intent on using him for their own ends.
Instead we see arrogant psychopaths like Narcy, an ego-driven dandy who stops at nothing to get what he wants, whether it's money, material goods, unearned status, or the girl he fancies at the moment. Most of all, he wants power, the ability to control other people through their terror of him and use them as instruments of his will. Griffith Jones gives a chilling performance as the vain, tyrannical Narcy. Even in a film as brutal as this one, his sadism is startling. The scene where he punches and kicks Sally in her dressing room after he finds she has visited Clem in prison seems strong even by today's standards of violence. But in 1947 it must have been downright shocking, far more graphic than anything similar I've seen in an American film of the time.
Matching Jones's performance is Trevor Howard as Clem. In his long film career Howard didn't often play such an unrepentantly unsympathetic character, but when he did—in pictures like Outcast of the Islands (1951), Sons and Lovers (1960), as Capt. Bligh in the 1962 Mutiny on the Bounty—he was most effective. His Clem is as cynical an antihero as you'll find in postwar British cinema. He is not motivated by any abstract sense of justice. His world is too pitiless a place and too indifferent to the suffering of any one individual to expect any such thing, and he is too aware that he is in the eyes of society himself a villain. Instead he is driven by a strictly personal sense of having been wronged. It's a stark, amoral take on the kind of film Alfred Hitchcock made time and again, the story of the wrongly accused man on the run desperately trying to prove his innocence.
The thing that most closely allies this film to postwar American film noir, though, is its unrelenting sense of fatalism. This aura of doom is the thing that for me distinguishes film noir from the gangster and crime films from which it developed—that feeling that the main character is enmeshed in circumstances beyond his control from which there is little possibility of escape. In the conventional gangster picture, the main character's fate is the result of flaws in his own nature, an ego that becomes so bloated that it spins out of control and leads to self-destruction. In film noir, the main character is a victim controlled by external forces. Like Clem, he may be responsible for putting himself in the situation that leads to his downfall, but in the end he becomes controlled by the situation. Unlike the gangster, the film noir antihero's downfall is ultimately caused not by internal, but by external forces.
One of the most intriguing things about They Made Me a Fugitive is the way it teases us at the end with the possibility that Clem might be able to avoid his fate after all. This comes about after a Hitchcock-like set piece that forms the picture's finale. With the police looking on from below, Clem chases Narcy across the roof of the undertaker's parlor which is the gang's hideout, a building with a huge sign that reads RIP on its roof. (Did I mention what a bizarre sense of humor and an almost Dickensian feel for the macabre the film has—perhaps not surprising from the director of the 1947 Nicholas Nickleby and the best episodes of Dead of Night.) Will Narcy relent and exonerate Clem in the end? Not on your life. Narcy remains true to character, continuing to insist that Clem is responsible for the policeman's death. Will Clem take comfort from Sally's vow to wait for him? "I was afraid you'd say that," he tells her coldly as he is led away.
There are no bogus happy endings in They Made Me a Fugitive, no contrived reversals intended to restore the viewer's sense of security and comfort. The movie doesn't draw back from following through on the implications of its cynical view of the world, but is faithful to its downbeat film noir sensibility to the end.
Turner Classic Movies is airing They Made Me a Fugitive on March 8. Check local listings for times. It's also available from Kino Video as part of the set Film Noir: Five Classics from the Studio Vaults.