This is a classic piece of pre code social problem film making. What shocked me watching it in 2022 was how well it held up.
The pacing and superb craft on display make this film feel incredibly relevant and modern.
Based on the true story of a WWI veteran sentenced to hard labor in Georgia, the film doesn’t need to embellish as the true account is stranger than any fictional narrative could concoct. James Allen is a man lost after the war who tried to find engineering work only to be turned away in the midst of the depression. He ends up an unwilling accomplice in a robbery and sent to work on the chain gang. He escapes and builds a respectable life only to have his past come back to haunt him.
Few scenes in the film last longer than 2 minutes. The script is ruthlessly efficient. It conveys all the emotion and plot in as few lines as possible. This is backed up by the filmmaking. James is stuck in a factory job, but he yearns to be an engineer. He works at his factory desk underneath a giant window. Outside the window he can see a major construction project. The job he wants is looming over him as he files paperwork. The visuals use a shorthand to reinforce the minimal dialogue.
I loved the sound design which is unique among films of this time period. Sound design as a concept wasn’t really defined until the 70’s. This film from 1932 incorporates a rich sound design to bombard the viewer with the relentless noise of the chains as James Allen suffers on the chain gang.
The performances usually trip up older movies. They’re often too showy and theatrical. Some verge on theatrics, but they are anchored by Paul Muni who brings a naturalism to his portrayal.
The characters aren’t deep, but they all serve the narrative. That narrative proved life changing. This film and the true story it’s based on helped influence public opinion and abolish the chain gang system in America.
The film has maybe my final line in any movie. The final scene is haunting and riveting. It’s a little melodramatic, but it packs a punch. I love this movie.
This movie is my cup of tea. A+