Production Company: Warner Bros.
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Top Billed Actors: Paul Muni, Glenda Farrell, Helen Vinson
IMDb Rating: 8.1
*Best Picture Nominee*
Won 0 Oscars
Nominated for 3 more:
Best Actor - Paul Muni
Best Sound - Nathan Levinson
Plot: A fugitive from a chain gang goes back to the chain gang and then becomes a fugitive from a chain gang again.
The Pre-Code aspect of this movie makes it great. Nothing is held back in terms of the plot and what is shown. Violence, sex, and emotion is shown throughout. It really draws you into the movie with its no-holds-barred mentality. Paul Muni is also a highlight. One of only three Best Actor nominees, Muni outshines his colleagues in every scene. He gives the viewer a sense of anticipation when he narrowly escapes the chain gang in the fields and when he is on the run in urban settings. I've seen Muni in a couple of other roles in the 1930s but I this is my favorite. He portrays a wide range of character, from the elite status of a hotshot civil engineer to the lowly grunt prisoner in the Georgian heat. He is simply superb. The plot is also fast-paced and, although the film is a modest 92 minutes, the end feels like it comes too early. Wonderful transitions between months (and sometimes years) make the movie feel epic in scope. Observing the hardship of the prison system in the South and seeing what Muni became of himself and how he was never really free out in the real world actually made me feel anger. That is how engrossing and smooth the narrative is. The ending car chase is wonderfully shot and the suspense is a microcosm to the foreboding felt throughout the second and third acts of the movie.
Although Muni is excellent, the same cannot be said for some of his co-stars. Every female in the movie is annoying and his brother, Hale Hamilton, fell short of any expectation of acting. It made Muni seem that much better, but he really didn't need the help. He ultimately loses his first nomination to Charles Laughton, but this movie helped put him on the map for the short years to come. I also dislike how Warner Bros. are introducing the cast at the beginning of its films. I noticed it in One Way Passage (1932) and this one does the same thing. After the opening credits are displayed, the cast members are shown on screen with their names, just like a sitcom opening a la Full House. I just hope it ends soon.
Overall, the gripping story, social weight, and Paul Muni make this an essential film. This will not be the last time I mention this movie before the 6th Academy Awards are over.
My Score: 8/10