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Kino Lorber is revitalizing some selected back catalogue titles, not only promoting them to Blu-ray, but finding improved sources and transfers. Their DVD of this title was quite good already, but the new HD version is even better.
After the Allied victory the English began making more 'dark crime stories', responding to the trend of popular thrillers being made in the States. When the movies began treating the distinctly British underworld of crime and criminals with more realism, calls for censorship rang out. 1947's They Made Me a Fugitive centers on the hot topic of smuggling in a time of official rationing -- which in England continued into the 1950s. Most of these pictures saw only spotty release in the U.S. and until recent years were almost forgotten over here. But in London, a number of crime pix scandalized stuffy critics and were much-debated in the papers: No Orchids for Miss Blandish, Cosh Boy, Brighton Rock, Good Time Girl, It Always Rains on Sunday. Some are as 'noir' as any American film, but aren't considered part of the same tradition. Others exploit the growing problem of youth crime. Richard Attenborough's scar-faced killer spiv "Pinky" in Brighton Rock is more coldly vicious than any contemporary American villain.
In They Made Me a Fugitive, ex- RAF flyer George Clement "Clem" Morgan (Trevor Howard) falls in with a gang of smugglers run by the two-faced Narcy (Griffith Jones). Narcy runs his operation out of a Manchester funeral home, and the hot contraband arrives in coffins borne by a horse-drawn hearse. When Clem finds that his cronies are also in the cocaine racket, he tries to quit. Narcy then frames Clem for killing a cop. Narcy changes girlfriends, dumping dancer Sally (Sally Gray, a truly hot number) for Clem's girl. Curious to see the man her ex-boyfriend framed, Sally visits the bitter Clem in prison. Making use of his wartime experience escaping from German POW camps, Clem slips out of prison and heads for town to take revenge. Narcy's helper Soapy (Jack McNaughton) flies into a panic, convinced that he's on Clem's death list as well; his girlfriend Cora (René Ray) can't calm Narcy down. Although the police dragnet makes it unlikely that Clem will reach Manchester, Narcy beats Cora savagely. He holds both her and Sally as prisoners, to make sure that Clem has nowhere to turn.
It's no wonder that the British censors were up at arms over Cavalanti's movie, what with its cocaine smuggling and various sordid criminal relationships. With every new shipment of cigarettes or food, the aged smuggler Aggie (Mary Merrall) asks for free samples, "for her boyfriend." Fans of American noir will find the movie to be fairly violent. For a 1947 English film it was scandalously violent. Two Bobbies are shot down in cold blood and another is run over 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 has an exotic look and hardboiled dialogue that sometimes seems too clever. Just the same, it's one of the few movies that approaches the slimy atmosphere of author Gerald Kersh's seamy London classic Night and the City. Crooked details abound, as in some scenes with a crooked club owner (Sebastian Cabot) and his grotesque underling Fidgety Phil (Peter Bull), a professional grass, or police snitch.
In the film's weirdest episode, the desperate Clem invades a country house looking for food and clothing. The haunted-looking housewife (Vida Hope) gives the fugitive what he wants, but then expects him to return the favor by murdering her alcoholic husband (Maurice Denham). When Clem refuses, the woman does the job herself and tells the cops that Clem did it. 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 (a major contributor to the marvelous Dead of Night) makes the most of Fugitive's evocative visuals, claustrophobic sets, rainy alleys and mordant humor. Most of the film seems to take 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") and a big sign on the roof reading simply 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 London rooftops.
The effects added to enhance Narcy's extremes are a good idea, for Fugitive's one weakness is that Narcy never seems as dangerous as he should be. His real name is Narcissus and he's portrayed as a full-blown narcissist as well. He recruits Clem because his smuggling operation "needs class. I have class too, but Clem was born into it." Trevor Howard is excellent as Clem but the screenplay omits what would seem to be key scenes. We never actually see what makes Clem decide to become a crook, and we don't see him actually escape from his prison cell. In no way could he be equated with one of Alfred Hitchcock's innocent heroes tossed into crazy circumstances. This makes Clem Morgan a far more realistic character but not an entirely satisfying one. 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. Frankly, he's still not a good risk for Sally, which makes the film's "I'll wait for you" conclusion less than reassuring.
Top-billed Sally Gray had an off-on film career. The beautiful ex-dancer had just been seen just previously in the suspenseful murder mystery Green for Danger. In this show she casually picks shotgun pellets out of Clem's shoulder with a pair of eyebrow tweezers: "What are you going to do about that lead in your back?"
Kino's copy of this 'Alliance Films Corporation' production looks terrific, with a richly textured image and clear sound that makes the dialogue easy to follow. It makes us eager to see more post-war Cockney crime epics.
Kino Classics' Blu-ray of They Made Me a Fugitive is a very fine HD restoration of this exciting and atmospheric crime show. A BFI logo may indicate that the Institute worked on the film's restoration. This disc's sharp detail and full range of tones allow us to appreciate the original granularity in the image - this looks like film, not video.
The presentation comes with no extras. We're told that They Made Me a Fugitive saw release in America under the title I Became a Criminal, but a full 22 minutes shorter. Although distributed in both countries by Warner Bros., this tough-minded crime tale has been under the radar for decades.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
They Made Me a Fugitive Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.