November 13, 2013

Paul Muni, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

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Paul Muni had quite an impressive run in the early thirties--by 1934 he'd been twice nominated for Best Actor and had already made the controversial Scarface, and he'd only been in four films! According to Inside Oscar, AMPAs revealed the placements of the nominees in the major categories at 1934's ceremony, pointing out that Muni was "right behind Charles Laughton." The book adds that there was only "polite applause" when Laughton was crowned the winner, suggesting that he wasn't exactly a crowd pleasing winner. But apparently the writers and many of the top Hollywood stars--Muni included--had resigned from AMPAs that year to form their own guilds, and despite his managing to pull out a nomination, one could imagine this as putting him at an unfavorable disadvantage in regards to accumulating enough votes to win him top honors. But I guess the question remains: is he any better than that year's champ?

 photo ScreenShot2013-11-08at124144AM.jpgWhat struck me initially was how different Muni's acting style is compared to his contemporaries. He isn't the least bit showy and isn't trying to ACT to the heavens above like Laughton was, and he isn't craft isn't as robotic like Howard. He falls somewhere in between, and there's a natural airiness to him--it's no wonder that Marlon Brando, future king of Method and naturalness, cited Muni as one of his inspirations. But as much as I wanted to like him, there are parts to his performance early on in which he doesn't seem to be digging as deeply as he could. I won't lie--not long after I watched I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, I went and saw 12 Years a Slave. While watching the latter I couldn't help but think of the former, as both heroes of the films are trapped against their wills in hostile environments. Now, I know that comparing an acting performance from 2013 to one from 1932 may not be the most just means of evaluation, but watching Chiwetel Ejiofor's work so soon after Muni only made me see how lacking the latter was in emotion and expressiveness. Early on there are many times in which Muni's character reacts to situations in certain ways yet all I'm able to see is an unemotional face. And for much of the film, he's kind of just coasting along, not really challenging the material at all, which is a shame because the role of James Allen is quite possibly the baitiest out of this year's nominees and rich with possibilities to provide money moments. 

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Just when I thought all hope was lost though, suddenly the film begins to wind down and Muni's work gets more and more intense. I would say that the latter half hour or so is what redeems it all for me--his display of heartbreak and rage when told his stay in the chain gang was extended from 90 days to a year is incredibly powerful and resonant. This combined with the reaction shot of him being denied leave later on are hands down two of the best acted moments by any of the nominees that year. His infamous last scene is also quite the sight to see--such wide eyed paranoia and uneasiness complemented by trembles of his voice when he says lines such as "...keep moving, that's all that's left for me" and "It is different! They've made it different!" creates such a haunting conclusion to a superb film. But alas, this is a reverse case of May Robson and I can't grade a performance based on an excellent last act. The fact of the matter is, I was pretty underwhelmed by Muni for most of the film and my only wish is that the performance was consistent with the exceptional severity that he displays in the end. So after much thought, ultimately I think it's fair to give Muni's work 

1 comment:

  1. This is my favorite Muni performance because it's more natural. In his career, it seems that the more make-up he put on the more theatrical his performance became. Here, he's just an average joe who is foisted into an insane situation that continues to worsen. As it does, the average joe falters and we begin to see the desperation of a lost soul who is at the end of his rope. Muni nails this aspect of the part. The final scene, capped off with that famous line as he disappears in darkness ("I steal") is harrowingly memorable. This is a great film with an integral performance by Muni