After World War II, Britain found itself with a surplus of demobilized, violently charged ex-soldiers, with little satisfactory work to expend their energy. “In 1938, the last full year of peace, 283,000 indictable offences had been reported in England and Wales,” Alan Allport writes in Demobbed: Coming Home After the Second World War. “In 1948, there were nearly 523,000.” Violent offenses and sexual assaults more than doubled. “We are reaching a situation where the ordinary citizen feels he is no longer safe in his own home,” one criminologist warned. Practically ripped from the headlines, Alberto Cavalcanti’s 1947 Brit Noir They Made Me A Fugitive is the story of ex-RAF man Clem (Trevor Howard) and his short, inglorious descent into the underworld.
Brit Noir is a strange subgenre that suffered from all kinds of latent insecurities: two of the best-known examples, Brighton Rock and It Always Rains On Sunday (also 1947 vintage) run more on atmosphere than intricate double-crosses and reversals. Fatalism emerges early and stories progress to inevitable conclusions, rather than offering the conventional comfort of plot twists. Lesser efforts try too hard to ape American hard-boiledness without the necessary grit, undercutting themselves with predictable British politeness and self-effacement: a would-be toughie like 1959’s Hell Is A City can offer Manchester atmosphere, unhinged psychos and a tough-talking policeman all it wants, but its heart is still in the dreariness of said policeman’s dreary and eminently respectable marital squabbles about whether or not to have a child.
Perhaps Cavalcanti’s outsider background — Brazilian born, trained under the wing of French avant-gardist Marcel L’Herbier, involved in productions across half of Europe — gave him the eye to navigate around the perils of over-polite imitation. He’s often noted as a visual thinker way ahead of his time, and Fugitive contains both some anxious effects (the frame spinning 360 degrees after a woman’s punched) and remarkable overhead shots that precede “Twin Peaks”’ creepy households by forty years, all sinister stairs and ill-lit second floors. But he also nails noir’s wit: the best such films could be mistaken for comedies, sparkling with euphemistic banter and a real delight in verbal thrusts and parries. (“I hope you never spoke to your mother like that.” “I never had one.” “Oh, come. You must have been the son of a… something.”)
Part of that’s the usual stiff-upper-lip stoicisms: “She loves me, she loves me not,” Clem drawls as Sally (Sally Gray) pulls buckshot fragments out of his back. But much of the comedy comes from noir’s usual leveling of cleverness: people complain now about Aaron Sorkin making everyone talk the same way, but the genre often pulled the same trick. When a criminal confronts a police officer outside a witness’ door, asks if he comes here often and the officer replies “I come every year to take the waters,” we’re experiencing gritty noir as a democracy of wit.
But even if the film distributes equal-opportunity wisecracks among its ensemble, it still presents an underworld that’s as riven by class tensions as British society at large. Clem’s betrayed by crime boss Narcy (Griffith Jones) in part because of his upper-class roots; any scruples Clem feels at drug-smuggling offend Narcy’s conception of what it takes to survive on a daily basis. Morality is a luxurious affectation. But Fugitive layers delirium on top of its realistic base. On the run, Clem wanders into Mrs. Fenshaw’s (Vida Hope) house. Pale, drawn and responding five times too slow to everything, what she wants gradually becomes clear: she wants Clem to kill her husband. Clem refuses (the only man he ever killed was a Nazi when he fled from POW camp), but their drawn-out interaction only descends further into a pure nightmare of irrationality.
The “They” of the title is post-war society, ill-prepared for its returning veterans — but it’s also the vague, nebulous, paranoiac’s “they,” everyone and no one, possessed by demonic forces impossible to pin down. Compounding that kind of fear with class comedy and noir violence makes They Made Me A Fugitive a truly synthetic Brit noir.
Vadim Rizov is a freelance film writer based in Brooklyn. His work regularly appears in Sight & Sound, the LA Weekly and the AV Club, among others.
Acknowledgment: Images from BFI.