I recently wrote a yet to be published article on the critical furore that greeted the 1939 James Hadley Chase book, No Orchids for Miss Blandish, and the 1948 film version. Among my research was an article by British film academic James Chapman which discussed the film version of No Orchids as part of a cycle of British crime films that drew severe condemnation from censors, moralists and film critics for their depiction of sex and violence and their bleak take on post-war British life. Another was the 1948 adaptation of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. But it was the first of this cycle, appearing in 1947, that I had not seen and only vaguely heard about, They Made Me a Fugitive or I Became a Criminal, the title it was released under in the United States.
Fugitive stars Trevor Howard as Clem Morgan, a demobbed Royal Air Force pilot who joins a criminal gang headed by a flash gangster with a very nasty streak, Narcy (Griffith Jones). Narcy runs a funeral parlour business as a front for a black-market operation, the good smuggled in the coffins. Morgan and Narcy take an instant alpha male dislike to each other. Morgan is particularly critical of Narcy’s decision to traffic in what he calls ‘sherbet’, which I think is cocaine (although this is not spelt out in the film). But Morgan’s fiancé, Ellen (Eve Ashley), takes a shining to Narcy, who she realises can deliver her the good life.
Morgan wants to quit the gang but, pushed by Ellen, agrees to take part in one last job for Narcy, knocking over a factory. The police arrive mid-robbery, Narcy’s driver, ‘Soapy’, panics and drives off, hitting and killing a policeman and crashing their van. Narcy knocks Morgan unconscious, leaving him to take the rap for the murder, while he and Soapy escape.
Morgan is doing fifteen years in prison when he is visited by Narcy’s now ex-girlfriend, Sally (Sally Gray). A show girl, Sally is angry that Narcy has dumped her and taken up with Morgan’s former fiancé and is contemplating helping Morgan to get out of jail by convincing Soapy to reverse the testimony he gave the police and admit it was he who was driving the van. Bitter at his incarceration, however, Morgan rebuffs her offer of help.
Narcy visits Sally and viciously beats her as a warning not to interfere in his affairs. Meanwhile, Morgan escapes while working on a road party, and proceeds to find Narcy and extract revenge for making him a felon. For those of you who have not seen Fugitive, I won’t spoil the plot, except to say it involves a tremendous fight scene in the building used as a front for Narcy’s undertaker business followed by an absolutely pitch-black noir ending.
Fugitive was based on a novel by Jackson Budd, a little known 1930s British thriller writer – whose books I now want to find – and adapted for the screen by Noel Langley, one of the screenwriters of The Wizard of Oz. It was directed by Brazilian born Alberto Cavalcanti. Cavalcanti had worked in Avant Garde cinema in 1930s Paris. He came to England and worked for Ealing Studios during the war. He directed several films while living in London, the best known of which is the gripping 1942 thriller Went the Day Well? about a small British town that is taken over by a group of Nazis disguised as British soldiers in advance of a pending German invasion. Cavalcanti returned to Brazil after Fugitive and I wonder whether this was because the film received such a negative reaction.
The characters in Fugitive are good but nothing amazing. Howard, who is a good character actor but doesn’t work as a leading man in my opinion, feels particularly miscast. He plays the role with zero empathy, probably because he walked into the film at the last moment when the actor who was supposed to play the role pulled out. But there is so much else about Fugitive that makes it an excellent and highly unusual British noir that Howard’s inadequacies in the role seem scarcely noticeable.
Whereas No Orchids pretended, and to some degree succeeded in being an American gangster film, Fugitive feels about as 1940s British as you can get and is heavy loaded with period detail and wonderful slang from the era. That said, the film has a number of stylistic flourishes that I associate with American film noir but which I can’t remember ever seeing in a British crime movie from that period. These include the camera work when Narcy beats up Sally and a wonderful summary scene involving Morgan’s escape from prison and the police manhunt to find him, complete with newspaper headlines and breathless radio news announcements.
But the best thing about Fugitive, and the aspect of the film that attracted the most critical condemnation when it first appeared, is its depiction of the coarseness, poverty and desperation of post-war British life. Violence is everywhere and has real and traumatic implications, which are particularly shown in relation to the female characters who suffer it. Everyone in the story is on the take and reduced to the status of criminals as a result of the desperation caused by rationing and poverty; a black-market leg of lamb here, some smuggled cigarettes or scotch there. “People have got terribly dishonest since the war,” says a truck driver who picks Morgan after his escape without knowing who he is. “Don’t know what the country’s coming to.” Without missing a beat, the driver then tries to sell his passenger some black-market petrol coupons.
But the societal corruptions resulting from the daily violence of the war are shown to have even darker implications. In one fascinating sequence Morgan, on the run from the police, is taken in by a strange wealthy woman who allows him to bath and shave in her house and gives him food and clothes. She then produces a pistol and asks Morgan to return her hospitality by shooting her alcoholic husband, who we briefly see, and who it is clear she absolutely loathes. Morgan refuses but after he is gone the woman goes ahead and guns down her spouse any way, blaming the crime on the escaped prisoner.
But as brutalising as the war was, the torpor of peace can seem worse, forcing people to make bad decisions. The film clearly shows Morgan initially joining up with Narcy’s outfit simply only out of sheer boredom with civilian life. Morgan’s dubious moral choice, which he pays for, was no doubt a major contributing factor to the subsequent moral panic around the film. The idea that the war, while terrible, gave the men involved in it a meaning and camaraderie missing in peacetime, and resulted in them sometimes taking questionable actions to try and replace these feelings, is a common trope in American film noir. But I can’t remember it being wielded with such effectiveness in British crime cinema in the immediate post-war period.