Twisted title time! Alberto Cavalcanti's 1947 noir film 'They Made Me a Fugitive' (also known as 'I Became a Criminal') has nothing to do with the 1939 Busby Berkeley flick 'They Made Me a Criminal' (which, according to IMDb, also bore the name 'I Became a Criminal'), even if the three titles sound identical, as if they were part of some franchise or series. A part of me wonders if Cavalcanti's work wasn't renamed by Warner, who also had a hand in the Berkeley film, for some kind of brand name recognition. Before this Kino Classics Blu-ray release, not only was I unaware of this jumbled name saga, but I also had never seen the post-war crime thriller. 'They Made Me a Fugitive' has found its way to my screen on a few occasions since, and not just because of the job covering it. This is genuinely a fascinating movie experience.
Part morality play, part revenge film, part crime syndicate saga, 'They Made Me a Fugitive' opens its winding journey by introducing us to a band of bootleggers led by Narcy (short for Narcissus, played by Griffith Jones), a corrupt man whose fronts keep him in good public standing. In a quest to seek more legitimacy and less suspicion, Narcy hires on class act and general good guy Clement "Clem" Morgan (Trevor Howard), though the two butt heads from the start over the way the job of delivering verboten goods starts to include a "sherbert" of the non-ice cream variety. In his first job, Clem is framed with the murder of a policeman and sent away for fifteen hard years, with the one witness who knows the truth (Jack McNaughton as Soapy) not turning King's evidence due to intimidation.
Clem doesn't stay in prison for his entire term, though, as he escapes while working in a road party outside prison. Seeking his past employer, who stole his life and his girl, Clem finds himself a hunted man, and not just by authorities, as those with dubious intentions seek to use the once clean man on the run for their dirty work. Clem's path to vengeance is littered with cruel irony, and with everyone on his tail, he seeks to clear his name or die trying.
'They Made Me a Fugitive' has its share of twists and turns in the road, and for its age, carries a more modern set of sensibilities. Sure, it doesn't exactly portray women in the kindest or strongest manner, as the ladies play a part more of a trophy to be paraded with and abused when they don't serve their purpose, the three leading gals seemingly interchangeable due to the way they are so sparsely fleshed out. This isn't a film without flaws, as outside of Narcy and Clem, few characters have any kind of development, though the motley crew do find their fortunes changing drastically as fate rears its ugly head. For the most part, every player outside the two polar opposite leads are pawns in a larger game, one with incredibly thick tension built with almost every scene in the film. One man fears the reaper he created, the other seeking to even the odds, no matter the consequence.
This film has a lot going for it, though, even outside the revenge tale. 'They Made Me a Fugitive' has a very tongue-in-cheek sense of humor (perfectly displayed by a game of "she loves me, she loves me not" using shotgun pellets lodged in ones back in the place of flower petals), while more than a few bits of allusion are made to the manner in which society handles the fringe elements. The subplot featuring the Fenshaw family is compelling filmmaking thrown in the middle of what seems an entirely unrelated film, and instead of adding confusion adds a great layer to the film, reminding us that while Clem is willing to break the law and do whatever it takes to kill the man who wronged him, he's still not a monster. It would have been nice to actually see Clem escape, as this film, whose main plot device is mentioned in countless scenes thereafter, is never seen, a somewhat brave, definitely different choice. It may just be easier to say 'They Made Me a Fugitive' isn't your ordinary, run of the mill film, even if its elements may not seem so fresh and original all these years later. Sixty five years after its initial release, 'They Made Me a Fugitive' is still compelling, daring, bold, unflinching humanity.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'They Made Me a Fugitive' comes to Blu-ray on the Kino Classics "Archival Collection" label, on a Region A locked BD25 disc. There is no packaging gimmickry, and the menu for the film is a static screen with audio loop, with no setup tab.
The cover of 'They Made Me a Fugitive' boasts the following claim: "A restoration by the BFI National Archive with funding provided by the Film Foundation." It gets ones hopes up, most certainly, but I found this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer to be mediocre at the very best. Sure, it holds very stable through the runtime, and has a pretty good amount of detail, but for the most part, the disc sports distracting, sometimes annoying, aggravating, or incredibly awkward picture quality.
The opening of the film, from the title credits up through the eleven minute mark, features a very light white vertical line that is hard to miss, though it sometimes masks itself in darker settings, and other portions of the film have prolonged verticals that draw the eye. The dirt in the title cards seemingly multiplies due to the lighter setting of the opening sequence, and finds its way to a slightly reduced standing for the remainder of the flick, though some wavering hairs flapping around can annoy greatly and there is the occasional extreme spike for a few frames every now and again. Black levels fluctuate, from a nice, deep jet to a sickly pale gray at times, though stronger blacks are far more frequent. Scene transitions push the picture up awkwardly at times, and other times leave bright flashes at the bottom of the screen, an issue that apparently wasn't worthy of correcting in this restoration.
What really set me off about this release is an issue that becomes apparent around the 55:39 mark, and doesn't resolve for the rest of the movie. It is around here when we first see an issue that is strikingly similar to aliasing, where random objects have a jagged appearance; only, this isn't aliasing. The first instance, when Clem's disheveled hair is in his face, shows us that the hair strands are comprised of a diagonal texture (like a backslash), in a fairly tight pattern, and it isn't just around the edges, as it permeates through the entire strand. From this point in the film onward, if you see this issue at all, you can't help but notice it in almost every single shot, as character outlines (particularly in jackets), skin outlines (painfully so), and damn near every object on screen has an awkward diagonal appearance. No amount of positives in the first half of the film make up for this issue, no amount of finely defined hair follicles, or clear picture that reveals chalky makeup and fine texture undoes the fact that textures and definition take a nosedive to diagonals everywhere. This restoration is in dire need of a restoration.
The audio on this disc comes by way of a Linear PCM 2.0 track that makes us wonder if any restoration was done to the sound qualities at all. There's an almost perpetual light background static behind the film, while some varied crackle and audio distortion can also be found. High ends, like the flutes in the score, come through in a shrill manner, while the opera sequence distorts the stronger, louder notes. It's nice that the score for the film has some power, but it only highlights the problems found on the disc. There's never a sign of synchronization issues, and the dialogue is mostly understandable without any strain or rewinding.
This disc includes trailers for other Kino titles. Since none are for this film, I consider them promotional/advetising, and not an extra, so no points.
'They Made Me a Fugitive' has found its way into a regular rotation in my home, with each repeat viewing revealing the same entertaining and enrapturing noir suspense as the first time around, even if there aren't additional layers to the film to be unearthed. The characters are very relatable, the story incredibly human, the setting fantastic and sometimes sinister. This Kino Classic release isn't the sharpest Blu-ray on the shelf, nor is it exactly pleasing to the ears, and it doesn't contain a single level of added value by way of supplements, making it a tough decision when it comes to one's wallet. I do recommend giving the film a viewing, at the very least, though.