The backroom of the London high street Valhalla Undertaking Company was filled with darkness. The walls and floor space taken up by stacks of wooden coffins. Stood in the bleak setting were a bunch of shifty looking cockney geezers. Gangsters. Rough looking thugs with thick necks, cauliflower ears and busted up flat noses. In amongst those brutish frames you had the usual crafty looking types. Weasel looking type. Sly and creepy. Ready to shank you in the back for a few bob or maybe just for the fun of it. You also had the loyal sidekicks in the mix. Eager to crack skulls with brass knuckle dusters. An older, mother figure organised as she kept an eye on the business. As long as a little extra came her way she was happy.
Standing tall and handsome, overseeing in his posh suit. We’re introduced to the slightly deranged gangster boss, Narcissus (Griffith Jones) or Narcy as he was known. He barks orders, combs his hair, kept himself smart as he admired his image in the mirror. Narcy and his gang were surrounded by bootlegged booze, cigarettes, silk stockings and even some sherbert!…. Cocaine! As you can see The Valhalla Undertakers was a front. A place to bring their smuggled goods packed inside the cover of a coffin. It was the perfect set up.
Narcy’s gangsters were a man down. He needed someone with a bit class to join the outfit. He had heard on the grapevine that a disillusion RAF pilot called Clem Morgan (Trevor Howard) was on the market to make some money. Feeling abandoned after the war, with little opportunity, he had hit the booze hard. With a few dodgy deals here and there he could raise himself some cash and get his life back on the straight and narrow. He was cool with lifting and fencing stolen goods but when Narcy pulls out a suspicious box filled white powder. Clem puts his foot down “I aint no sherbet peddler”
Narcy – “Ahh there’s the stuff that builds bonny babies me boy! There’s more mazuma in that there parcel than you’ll see in a month of foggy fridays. If I wanna peddle sherbet I’ll peddle sherbet even if it hurts your finer feelings.“
It’s not the only thing to get Narcy’s back up, he’s got eyes on Clem’s girl, Ellen (Eve Ashley). Even though he’s got his very own dancing showgirl Sally (Sally Gray) on his arm. Nah Clem’s rubbed him up the wrong way. He’ll make him pay and take his girl. With a new job on the go Narcy sees his moment. As Clems inside robbing the place, Narcy and his driver Soapy (Jack McNaughton) are ready to do a runner. But Clem ain’t all stupid! Well? Before he knows it he’s banged up in Dartmoor prison on a 15 year stretch for manslaughter. “He’s been set up like a kipper!”
What Narcy didn’t know was that Clem had been a POW during the war. He’d escaped before, he’ll do it again. He was handy with milk bottles. He’d only had to kill once before. “A nazi covered in swastikas from head to toe!” Now running across the moors he fled for his life. He was determined to clear his name and bring Narcy to justice. As we watch Clem’s plight go from one dangerous encounter to another we hope he will find an ally in the showgirl Sally. Come join Clem Morgan’s frantic journey across the Moors back to London. As he comes into the sights of a big showdown with Narcy and his gangsters?
A few things I learnt.
- Originally called They Made Me a Fugitive and later changed to I Became a Criminal for the American market.
- The movie is directed by a Brazilian called Alberto Cavalcanti. He had moved to England in the 1930s and worked for Ealing Studios and become an art director, producer and director before moving back to Brazil for a while after finishing this film.
- Alberto Cavalcanti directs two of the segments for the spooky 1945 Ealing horror drama Dead Of Night. One being The Ventriloquist’s Dummy part. I’m still to see this much recommended film. Off to see it as soon as possible now.
- They Made Me a Fugitive was based on a 1941 novel called A Convict Has Escaped by Jackson Budd.
- The screenplay was put together by Noel Langley who along with Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf had all worked together on that forever beloved classic The Wizard Of Oz.
- Sally Gray gets top billing and it’s not the first time she’s been featured on the Wolfman Film Blog. You can catch the beautiful lady in the equally brilliant British thrillers, Green For Danger with Alastair Sim and Obsession with Robert Newton. Sally Gray is awesome in all three of these films. Please feel free to recommend more of her work.
- The film is filled with classic every day quotes. There are tons of them. Here’s just three but keep an ear out for all the others. “Ask a silly question and you’ll get a silly answer” “I believe you, a thousand won’t” “No time to cry over spilt milk“.
- There is one truly WTF moment that had me howling at the screen which brought my daughter in the room to find out if I was ok lol. It was a moment that looked like a body double was used in a scene that didn’t need it. Not wishing to be mean to the stand in but it was like Narcy (Griffith Jones) was replaced with John Merrick for a few seconds! Actually looking back at it I assume it was distortion in the camera lens (as the sideburns are the same) to show the grotesque monster she sees. It did make me laugh.
Wrapping things up
They Made Me a Fugitive is such a first-rate piece of British Film Noir. The thrills and spills rock along at a cracking pace. Even to the point of catching you off guard with a slight time jump here and there. It really keeps you on your toes. The film is glorious fun. None more so than the dialogue which in it’s British nature of the 1940s can’t help but sound wonderfully cheesy. But thats all adds to more fun. One minute you’re giggling at all the banter then the next moment your jaw drops as shocking violence explosions on the screen. People are murdered, woman are beaten “If she tries anything take her inside and bash her face in!” and even tortured! “Let’s have a look at that belt you telling us about. What do you call it? The Coaxer!“. It must have been very controversial at the time.
There’s even room to try and sneak in the use of “Son Of A Bitch” in a few conversations. With a last second creative change to that last word. Even the slightly cheesy moment with a milk bottle can’t take away how original the finale is for the time. With giant RIP letters, head butts and a scathing, through blood soaked teeth “I hope you rot in hell!” This brilliant film packs a real punch. So there you go, if you get the chance to see this one for it’s pure entertainment value, I full heartedly recommend you do. Or let me know if you’ve seen it. I’d love to hear what you thought.
Thanks for popping in to see what been tickling me fancy in movieland. Best wishes.