Thursday, 20 November 2014


Sally: "What are you going to do about that lead in your back?" 

Clem: "Sell it for whatever it will fetch".

Some years back the British government of the day famously announced it was declaring war on the country’s ‘yob culture’ and the rampant anti-social behavior souring daily life. 

In truth the UK has always had its share of all-ages knaves: wide boys, bovver boys, teds, mods and rockers, punks, skins, lager louts and other scroats. But then 'lads’ll be lads, won't they?' 

This sideways affection for hooligans and crims has long shown up on screens big and small in Britain. In recent decades movies such as 'The Long Good Friday', 'Mona Lisa', 'The Krays', 'Gangster No.1',  'Sexy Beast', 'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels' and the nasty little confection ‘Layer Cake’ all got world-wide attention.

Small-bore felons also feature in just as many earlier UK productions. Among them was Alberto Cavalcanti’s unnerving ‘They Made Me a Fugitive’, one of a cycle of ‘spiv’ titles ('Brighton Rock' being the best known) about the black marketeers who prospered from shortages during and following the war. 

'They Made Me a Fugitive' has spivs both bad and worse. Clem Morgan (Trevor Howard) is an ex-RAF pilot and officer who's been on the bottle since being demobbed. Disillusioned and depressed, he's looking for a way to climb out of the hole into which he's dug himself. He hooks up with a gang headed by Narcy (Griffith Jones). When one of the gang asks him about Clem's 'specialty', he snaps, 'He’s got class. We need a bit of that in our business'. 

With those words, Narcy says just about everything there is to say about his petty motives and aspirations. Like most British gangster protagonists, Narcy’s origins are working-class poor. Obsessed with overcoming these, Narcy sees association with Clem as his way out.

It doesn’t take long for things to turn ugly between him and Clem when Clem realizes that the gang’s latest haul includes a cache of dope. He tells Narcy that he’s not playing along if drugs are part of the deal. Narcy turns on him and asks Clem if he thinks that they’re not ‘respectable enough’ for him while one of Narcy’s henchmen accuses Clem of being 'stuck up' and 'just an amateur muckin’ about for the fun of it'. Clem himself confides to his 'posh' girlfriend, Ellen (Eve Ashley), 'Look, we’re slumming here' and 'I may be a crook but I’m not that kind of crook'. 

Though Clem for whatever reason has turned his back on the class 'that made him' (or it's turned its back on him), he’s not ready to succumb to low-life thuggery. Narcy, on the other hand is pathological in his hunger to become ‘a gent’. Suspecting he’ll never achieve it, he begins to make Clem the target of his fear and loathing. Narcy clearly covets Clem's station in life (as well as his girlfriend) and also despises Clem for everything he otherwise represents. Clem on the other hand looks at Narcy and sees an uneducated hoodlum with delusions of becoming something he’ll never be. 

Their relationship is rendered even more twisted with the film's inspired counter-casting of the two main actors. Clem, as played by Howard is by far the more rugged and masculine of the two. On the other hand, Narcy (short for Narcissus) played by Griffith Jones is slighter, affected and a bit of a dandy. But while not that physically imposing, Narcy is still a very scary piece of work.

An uneasy truce is arrived at when Narcy tells Clem that they don’t plan to make dope a regular part of the trade. Unfortunately for Clem, when the next job comes off, Narcy sets him up for a fall - a big one. Clem ends up convicted of manslaughter and is sentenced to 15 years hard labor in Dartmoor Gaol. Months later, Clem gets a visit out of the blue from Sally (Sally Gray), the now-former girlfriend of Narcy who dumped her for Clem’s bird, Ellen. Clem had his suspicions but it’s still not welcome news. 

Sally also tells him that Soapy (Jack McNaughton), who was in on the frame is now in hiding from Narcy and might be persuaded to turn's King's evidence against him, thus clearing Clem - at least of the manslaughter charge. Clem listens but also has his doubts about Sally's motives and why she’s there. He blows up and tells her to get lost.

The prison scene highlights Trevor Howard's stormy command of the screen. While British filmgoers usually preferred their chaps to be stolid and affable (think Jack Hawkins, Richard Todd, Bernard Lee), that never much suited Howard. His forte was playing brittle mavericks and self-destructive cynics.  As Clem – an embittered noir protagonist struggling to get out of a situation not entirely of his making but still forced to reckon with some of the blame and all of the consequences – Howard’s performance in ‘Fugitive’ is definitive. 

Poor Sally Gray on the other hand seems to have wandered into the wrong movie. The actress, a favorite of British film audiences in the 30's and 40's is to-the-manor-born and forever sounds about to choke on the plum in her mouth. That Gray is supposed to be a chorus girl and a sadistic gangster's bit of fluff is more than a stretch. But she’s likable enough in a goofy, distracted way and eventually she manages to work into her character (or vice-versa).

Jones’ Narcy on the other hand is a textbook psychopath - charming, glib, selfish, promiscuous, and without remorse. He’s a misogynist who beats and tortures. Narcy goes to see Sally in her apartment after he learns that she's been to see Clem in prison. In a rage, he kicks her into unconsciousness. He later confronts Cora, wife of the would-be snitch, Soapy, wanting to know where he's hiding. He orders Big Jim, one of his louts to use his 'coaxer', a heavy leather belt studded with angled-edged medallions as big as horse brasses. Threatened with disfigurement and worse, Cora breaks down and spills (which comes as a relief). 

It was screen moments like these – well outside the experience of most British filmgoers - that also resulted in the film’s truncated release in the US as 'I Became a Criminal' (a cultural inversion to ponder) with a running time of only seventy-eight minutes instead of original British version’s ninety-six. 

That said, 'They Made Me a Fugitive' is given a deliberate and artful direction by Alberto Cavalcanti (or 'Cavalcanti' as he chose to be called) probably best known for his 'The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby' (1947). Cavalcanti began his career in his native Brazil, and then worked in several countries including France where he became part of both avant-garde and documentary movements that anticipated the French 'poetic realism' of the 1930’s.

There’s tension - though not friction - between realist and expressionist impulses that create unease within the frame. Cavalcanti often foregrounds and shoots around objects and sometimes through them for expressive effect. At one point Narcy's face is reflected in a mirror that casts an image as grotesque as seen in some carnival of horror. It leaves no doubt Narcy is completely deranged.

Behind the camera was Czech-born Otto Heller who too had been schooled in German Expressionism and arguably is as responsible for the film's intense affect as Cavalcanti. (Heller would later shoot Michael Powell’s infamous 'Peeping Tom' (1960). 'Fugitive' also is tightly edited by Margery Saunders who worked with Calvacanti on several more films before editing on a long list of low-budget crime titles - many of which are counted in as part of the British classic noir cycle.

'They Made Me a Fugitive' was based on a mystery thriller 'A Convict Has Escaped' by Jackson Budd. The book was adapted for the screen by playwright and screenwriter Noel Langley  who left to work abroad on less grievous projects such as the  'Wizard of Oz' and television's' Shirley Temple's  Storybook'. However 'Fugitive's script is bitter and corrosive in ways that distance it from even the darkest American movies of the period. 

Now nearly seventy years on Britain's seemingly intractable class system has weakened but remains a long way from going away - as do the acid resentments to which it gives rise. 

As for Britain's scurvy yobs - crude, obnoxious, stupid and violent - they still manage to infest daily life like cockroaches. Some things never change. 

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