Sinister stabbings, women kicked and beaten, perverse hoodlums selling cocaine and murdering street-beat bobbies: what happened to civilized English crime? Cavalcanti’s vicious postwar Brit Noir shocked critics for The Times and was cut to ribbons for American distribution. A disillusioned, bored RAF hero turns to smuggling and skullduggery; this fully restored crime classic gives us Trevor Howard, Sally Gray and Griffith Jones in one of the best — and most brutal — crime pix of its day. Plus attractive PI extras.
They Made Me a Fugitive
1947 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 102 78 min. / I Became a Criminal / Street Date September 23, 2019 / available from Powerhouse Films UK / £15.99
Starring: Sally Gray, Trevor Howard, Griffith Jones, René Ray, Charles Farrell, Maurice Denham, Vida Hope, Peter Bull, Sebastian Cabot.
Film Editors: Margery Saunders, Terence Fisher (uncredited)
Original Music: Marius-François Gaillard
Written by Noel Langley from a novel by Jackson Budd
Produced by N.A. Bronstein
Directed by Cavalcanti
Brit crime tales can be fantastic on Blu-ray when they’re properly restored. This dynamic underworld tale is a top title in a filmic subgenre that defied the ‘good taste’ of Britain’s Tradition of Quality — yet it’s made with precision, from a film script that would be the envy of any top-flight U.S. noir. And not being hampered by our Production Code gives its violence a particularly vicious edge.
After the Allied victory the English began making more dark crime stories, perhaps responding to the trend of popular thrillers imported from the States. When British screens reflected the criminal underworld with more realism, calls for censorship rang out. A number of crime pix scandalized stuffy critics and were much-debated in the papers: No Orchids for Miss Blandish, Brighton Rock, It Always Rains on Sunday, Good Time Girl, Cosh Boy. Richard Attenborough’s scar-faced killer spiv ‘Pinky’ in Brighton Rock is more coldly vicious than any contemporary American villain — he wields a straight razor. Most of these pictures saw only spotty release in the U.S., sometimes with entire scenes deleted to eliminate unacceptable violence. Often poorly reviewed, they were all but forgotten for decades. 1947’s They Made Me a Fugitive centers on the hot topic of smuggling in a time of strict official rationing — which in England continued into the 1950s. It has no conventional hero — the dashing main character knowingly enters a life of crime — but is refreshingly liberated from Hollywood’s moralistic fairy tales.
The screenplay is by Noel Langley, a Hollywood veteran with a big credit for writing, I kid you not, The Wizard of Oz. Disillusioned ex- RAF flyer George Clement ‘Clem’ Morgan (Trevor Howard) hasn’t abandoned the wartime recklessness with which he escaped from a German POW camp. He falls in with a gang of smugglers led by the ruthless functioning psychotic Narcy (Griffith Jones, of the comedy Miranda). Narcy runs his operation out of a Manchester funeral home, and his hot contraband — cigarettes, silk stockings — arrives in coffins borne by a horse-drawn hearse. When Clem finds that Narcy’s outfit is also in the cocaine racket, he tries to quit. Narcy hides his rage over this affront to his authority, and retaliates by framing Clem for killing a cop. Narcy changes girlfriends, dumping dancer Sally (top-billed Sally Gray, a truly hot number) for Clem’s girl Ellen (Eve Ashley). Curious to meet the man framed by her ex-boyfriend, Sally visits Clem in prison. She lets the bitter inmate know that his 15-year prison term could end, if his fellow crook Soapy (Jack McNaughton) should turn state’s evidence and tell the truth. Making use of his wartime experience, Clem slips out of prison and heads for town for revenge. Soapy flies into a panic, convinced that he’s on Clem’s death list as well; his girlfriend Cora (René Ray) runs afoul of Narcy. Although the police dragnet makes it unlikely that Clem will reach Manchester, Narcy holds both Cora and Sally as prisoners, and considers torturing them to find and eliminate Soapy.
It’s no wonder that the British censors were up at arms against Cavalanti’s movie, what with its cocaine smuggling and various sordid criminal relationships. The wicked screenplay finds twisted humor in almost every situation — with every new shipment of cigarettes or food, the aged smuggler Aggie (Mary Merrall) asks for free samples ‘for her boyfriend.’ For 1947 England, They Made Me a Fugitive was scandalously violent. Bobbies are brutalized, and Narcy runs over another one with a car. The absence of establishment values surely rankled the Brit bluenoses. Although a police detective is a respected character, the real sympathy is with Trevor Howard’s vengeful Clem Morgan, who fights dirty and trusts no one. Before They Made Me a Fugitive is half over, we know that Clem has gone much too far to be forgiven by society.
They Made Me a Fugitive’s hardboiled dialogue carries an edge of English wit, often gallows humor. It’s one of the few movies that approach the slimy atmosphere of author Gerald Kersh’s seamy London classic Night and the City, the Hollywood movie version of which is claimed by English critics as part of their Brit-noir tradition. Crooked details abound, as in some scenes with a crooked club owner (Sebastian Cabot) and his grotesque underling Fidgity Phil (Peter Bull), a professional police snitch. Several of Narcy’s hoods are unpleasantly happy in their work, like the devious Curley (Charles Farrell) and the brutish Jim (Michael Brennan), who the detective calls ‘Frankenstein.’
One episode is so weird, we don’t mind that it’s a wild coincidence. En route to Manchester, his back peppered with buckshot from a farmer, the desperate Clem invades a country house looking for food and clothing. The haunted-looking housewife Mrs. Fenshaw (Vida Hope of The Man in the White Suit) offers the fugitive food and clothing. But she then entreats him to return the favor by murdering the alcoholic Mr. Fenshaw (Maurice Denham of The Purple Plain). Clem refuses, but gets into more trouble just the same. A little one-act play unto itself, the scene is an island of domestic misery that adds to Fugitive’s sense of despair. We’re never told why the housewife wants her husband dead. By the look of things her motivation might be pure boredom.
The artful Brazilian director (Alberto) Cavalcanti made the wartime Went the Day Well? and was a major contributor to the marvelous Dead of Night. He makes the most of Fugitive’s evocative visuals, claustrophobic sets, rainy alleys and mordant humor. Most of the film takes place at night; ace cameraman Otto Heller bathes the screen in dark shadows. The smuggler’s hideout is a funeral parlor with ironic homilies on the walls: ‘It’s later than you think.’ Big letters on the roof spell out a baleful R. I. P.. Cavalcanti’s ease with expressionistic effects comes through in scenes of extreme emotion. When Narcy prepares to give a woman a savage beating, his reflection in a mirror becomes distorted. The camera spins wildly when he kicks her on the floor. The film makes use of many barely perceptible matte shots, linking stage sets with painted views of city rooftops. Cavalcanti’s cinematic flourishes raise the show to the top ranks of Brit noir.
Griffith Jones’ Narcy is a really believable, horrible villain. His real name is Narcissus and he’s portrayed as a full-blown narcissist as well. His charm has a snakelike, cultured insincerity — he’s cultivated Clem as a possible recruit by getting Ellen to seduce him. Narcy wants Clem on the payroll because his smuggling operation “… needs class. I have class too, but Clem was born into it.” Narcy is brilliant at details but obsessive about making others cower in fear. He kills for minor lapses of loyalty; after just one protest, Narcy goes to extreme lengths to frame Clem for murder.
Trevor Howard is excellent as Clem, a misaligned veteran who decides to become a crook out of what seems to be plain inertia — Ellen says that civilian work just doesn’t thrill him, and that what he really needs is another war. His excuse for becoming a smuggler is that the wartime experience gave him an itch for dangerous thrills, an itch that needed to be scratched. Howard really gets put through the wringer — Clem navigates Manchester while wounded and hungry, and more often than not looks like a drowned rat.
Clem doesn’t begin to regain his moral compass until both the police and crooks are after him. He discovers that there are good people — the principled Sally believes he’s innocent just because she knows Narcy too well. Clem Morgan is a good warm-up for Carol Reed’s uncompromising Outcast of the Islands, where Trevor Howard portrays Joseph Conrad’s self-destructive leading character, a Lucifer-like serial betrayer of all the decent people that try to help him.
Actress Sally Gray had an off-on film career. The beautiful ex-dancer had just previously been co-starred with Trevor Howard in the suspenseful murder mystery Green for Danger. In this show she must steel her stomach so she can pluck shotgun pellets out of Clem’s shoulder, using a pair of eyebrow tweezers: “What are you going to do about that lead in your back?”
Mary Merrall’s sly crook Old Aggie advises Narcy, just as Margaret Wycherly will coddle the equally psychotic Cody Jarrett two years later in White Heat. We know Marcy has gone off the deep end when he doesn’t take her advice. René Ray is terrific as the terrorized Cora; she’d later write the novel and original teleseries for The Strange World of Planet X, which became the minor sci-fi film Cosmic Monsters. Vida Hope is haunting as the murderous housewife, who stares as if in a trance. Fans of the versatile actor Peter Bull will flip to see the hilariously mischievous faces he pulls as Fidgity Phil, the enthusiastic police snitch.
Powerhouse Indicator’s Region-free Blu-ray of They Made Me a Fugitive carries a BfI logo; the sharp, detailed and stable restored image shows off producer Nat Bronstein’s expensive-looking sets, and the superb cinematography of Otto Heller (Peeping Tom, Alfie, The Ipcress File). Bronstein was quite a rebel producer. In addition to the screwy crime picture The Hidden Room, he produced the blacklisted-exiled Edward Dmytryk’s protest against capitalism, Give Us This Day aka Christ in Concrete.
We find out that the movie was released in the United States in 1948 with the title I Became a Criminal, but shorn of a full 23 minutes! After they cut out the savage beatings of women, the business with smuggling cocaine, the torture of Cora and the murderous domestic situation between the Fenshaws, things must have seemed been pretty tame, and likely incomprehensible. No wonder the ‘Parents Advisories’ at the time found few problems — they must refer only to the cut version.
A long-form audio talk with Alberto Cavalcanti is key research material and quite welcome. We also looked forward to the video featurette with the genial Neil Sinyard, who discusses the notoriety of this and other post-war crime dramas.
A piece on the restoration ends up focusing on a single 1-second shot. In the middle of the beating suffered by Sally Gray at the hands of Griffith Jones, a flash cut of her face looks like a damaged remnant. But BfI expert Kieron Webb explains that it was that way in all the original release prints they referenced, and is possibly an intentional Cavalcanti effect.
Two Royal Air Force training films included contain appearances by Trevor Howard before his official film career began. I saw a young guy who looked a little like him in the first film, and he somehow slipped by me in the second. Squaring the Circle is a dry three-reeler about slotting young wartime recruits into appropriate RAF jobs; the soundtrack for its first reel has gone missing. The Aircraft Rocket is an interesting training piece to show pilots how to coordinate air attacks on enemy ships. At first view there’s a major disconnect: the neat and orderly animated demos — precisely showing missile and strafing trajectories, etc. — look nothing like the chaotic real-life battle footage, with scattershot hits filling the entire screen.
Happily, Anthony Nield’s essay in the limited edition booklet explains the wartime training films in depth. Yep, Trevor Howard is in both of them.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
They Made Me a Fugitive
Region-free Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: The John Player Lecture (1970, 62 mins): archival audio recording of Alberto Cavalcanti at London’s National Film Theatre, including discussion with Michael Balcon, Paul Rotha and Basil Wright; After Effects (2019, 29 mins): an appreciation by Neil Sinyard; About the Restoration (2019, 14 mins) with the BFI’s Kieron Webb; Squaring the Circle (1941, 33 mins): dramatised Royal Air Force training film, starring Trevor Howard in his first known film role; The Aircraft Rocket (1944, 9 mins): extract from a multi-part RAF technical film, featuring Howard; Image gallery. Limited edition 36-page booklet with a new essay by Nathalie Morris, extracts from Cavalcanti’s Film and Reality, a 1970 article by Geoffrey Minish, an overview of contemporary critical responses, Anthony Nield on the wartime films of Trevor Howard, and film credits.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: November 11, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson