Despite the end of the war, food, clothing and other essentials were rationed in Britain throughout the late 1940s, a policy so hated that it ultimately lead the voters to dump Atlee’s Labour government. Because post-war rationing was not seen as legitimate, many otherwise law-abiding people began buying goods on the black market. The spivs who ran the black market soon became the subject of a series of films. Like another of my recommendations (Brighton Rock), 1947’s They Made Me a Fugitive weds a story about spivs and the conventions of film noir with tremendous success.
Because much of the respectable British public was happily doing business with spivs, it was possible in this era to portray at least some of them as admirable, and that is the case with the protagonist here, Clem Morgan. Played with grit and style by Trevor Howard, Clem is that durable noir archetype, the embittered ex-soldier. Drinking heavily and out of work, he is drawn into a black market operation by his much nastier acquaintance Narcy (A superbly chilling Griffith Jones, whose film career inexplicably never really took off). Narcy, filled with class resentment, realizes that Clem’s upper class manners may come in handy and he also has his eye on Clem’s lovely girlfriend (Sally Gray, whose talents I highlighted in my recommendation of Obsession). Clem has no qualms about smuggling nylons and coffee, but when he finds that Narcy is also moving “sherbet”, he draws a moral line, and Narcy decides to frame him for a horrible crime. The struggle between the two men provides the meat of the rest of film, up to and including an appropriately unhappy ending.
They Made me a Fugitive is a well-acted, tough, thrilling tale of crime and vengeance which Director Cavalcanti and cinematographer Otto Heller carry off with many memorable visual flourishes. Narcy’s distorted face in a mirror as he metes out savage violence is one of several sequences that recall noir’s origins in German expressionism. Noel Langley’s screenplay, based on a novel by Jackson Budd, is another strength of the movie. There’s some terrific dialogue, nice touches of black humor and some hair-raising moments of unblinking cruelty. The sequence in which Clem, fleeing from the cops, gets help from a stranger who has her own grim motive perfectly conveys the dark, cynical outlook on humanity from which the best noirs draw their lifeblood.
The one disappointment in this film is that the final fight scene is poorly choreographed to the point of being almost unintentionally comic. Fortunately, this is immediately compensated for with a rooftop showdown between Clem and Narcy that is Hitchcock-level suspenseful (and has a Hitchcock-level joke embedded: Look at those three letters!).
Some elevated types in Britain hated movies like this for their “morbid burrowing” into the dark reaches of the human psyche…but that’s precisely where drama, excitement, and intrigue are often found.