A Brutal Film Noir: Cavalcanti’s They Made Me a Fugitive (1947)

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To view The Made Me a Fugitiveclick here.

Brazilian filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti had quite an interesting career. After several years directing films in France, the director signed a contract with the prestigious Ealing Studios in England. While Cavalcanti only made a handful of films at the studio before departing due to a contract dispute, his tenure helped to establish his career as a director. During his time at Ealing, Cavalcanti directed Went the Day Well (1942), Champagne Charlie (1944) and a vignette in the mysterious and creepy Dead of Night (1945), which is best described as a sort of proto Twilight Zone (1959-1964). Immediately following his stint at Ealing, Cavalcanti made three more films in the UK, all in 1947: Nicholas Nickleby, The First Gentleman and They Made Me a Fugitive, which is arguably Cavalcanti’s finest cinematic achievement.

Released under the title I Became a Criminal in the United States, the film noir They Made Me a Fugitive, stars the brilliant Trevor Howard in one of his earliest performances as Clem Morgan, a WWII veteran and discharged RAF pilot who has taken up a career as a small-time criminal as a result of being unable to find legitimate employment. Morgan works for Narcissus, nicknamed “Narcy” (Griffith Jones), an egomaniacal sociopath whose business is in the black market trade. Like most crime bosses, Narcy is constantly on the hunt for new (usually illegal) ventures that can render him a profit. Of course, with heightened greed comes greatly increased risk. Cleverly using a funeral parlor as a front and coffins to transport the illegal goods, Narcy and his crew appear to have a strong cover, protecting them from the prying eyes of the police. But when Narcy decides to dip into the illicit drug trade, he makes his operation more vulnerable. Clem, whose questionable ethics justify dealing in general black market goods but not in drugs, makes the decision to quit the racket after one last job. As with most film noirs, that last job doesn’t go exactly as planned. After a botched robbery and a set-up by Narcy, Clem is framed for the murder of a police officer. Sentenced to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Clem breaks out and seeks revenge against Narcy and those who were complicit in his frame-up.

During the 1940s and 1950s, and especially during and immediately following World War II, the film noir genre was at its peak. The washed-up cop-turned-seedy detective, hot-blooded drifter and disenfranchised veteran as anti-heroes were important components of the genre. These backgrounds, especially for the veteran characters who have fallen on hard times, gave these characters complicated depth and moral ambiguity, while holding society responsible, at least partially, for their shortcomings and eventual downfall. In the case of They Made Me a Fugitive, Clem Morgan is a different kind of casualty of the war. After serving his country, they quickly abandoned him. Much like the forgotten men of World War I, Clem is rendered useless, unable to find work and support himself, leaving him without any kind of a future. His only option is to turn to a life of crime. While he makes money he also gets some satisfaction and retribution by sticking it to the very institutions that put him in this position in the first place.

THEY MADE ME A FUGITIVE, director Alberto Cavalcaniti (eyeglasses) filming Sally Gray (right) on set

Unlike many of the film noir productions out of Hollywood, especially more mainstream films such as Double Indemnity (1944) and Out of the Past (1947), They Made Me a Fugitive is incredibly raw and brutal. Its blunt depiction of the crime underworld is quite shocking, especially given when the film was made. Cavalcanti doesn’t pull any punches. In establishing the viciousness of Narcy’s behavior, we not only hear about his temperament, but we witness it firsthand. In a particularly disturbing scene, Narcy beats his former girlfriend, Sally (played by Sally Gray), for her betrayal in helping Clem. In most films, especially those after the enforcement of the Production Code, that kind of behavior and violence would only be alluded to, and vaguely at that. Another shocking moment is when Sally removes lead buckshot from Clem’s back. While we never see the actual wound as Sally cleans and bandages it up, we witness her fear and queasiness, hearing each piece of lead drop into a bowl as Clem recites “She loves me, she loves me not.”

While difficult to watch at times, They Made Me a Fugitive is a gritty, realistic portrayal of the dangerous criminal underworld. And while he left the UK shortly after this film’s release for a directorial career in his native Brazil, Cavalcanti definitely made his mark on the film noir genre.

Jill Blake

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5 Responses A Brutal Film Noir: Cavalcanti’s They Made Me a Fugitive (1947)
Posted By kingrat : July 8, 2017 12:26 am

Cavalcanti is such a talented director. I’d like to see some of his French and Brazilian films.

Posted By Doug : July 8, 2017 1:07 am

Thank you, Jill-love the pictures which go well with the review.
When I read, “Much like the forgotten men of World War I…” I was reminded of American Vietnam Veterans who were not welcomed back as heroes; maybe it happens after every war.
I wonder why anyone thought that “I Became A Criminal” would be a good title in the United States. That’s a confession, not an accusation, as in: “They Made Me A Fugitive”.

Posted By George : July 8, 2017 2:12 pm

Maybe the distributor though it would be confused with THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL, a 1939 John Garfield movie.

Posted By AL : July 8, 2017 6:20 pm

Thank you, Jill. I’m looking forward to this one; and WHO is Sally Gray ???–whattaBABE!

Posted By Bunta Sugawara : July 20, 2017 4:25 pm

Has anyone seen Cavalcanti’s Affairs of a Rogue / The First Gentleman (1948)?

Very hard to find, even on the grey market.

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