Last night I watched Mervyn LeRoy's 1932 film I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. It's a great film about hell.
It's sort of a proto-noir, in that the protagonist, James Allen (Paul Muni), is someone who would more traditionally be considered a villain, though the circumstances that lead to his initial sentencing to the chain gang form a slightly improbable string of melodrama, where Allen's forced at gunpoint to rob a diner. I guess this would be to insure the audience continues to sympathise with the man during his terrible existence in the chain gang. The movie's based on a true story, and the real life James Allen, actually named Robert Elliot Burns, had intentionally stolen in order to feed himself.
But the movie is an effective indictment of the chain gangs in Georgia of the time as we see Muni and his fellow prisoners forced to subsist on meals of pig fat and sorghum, beaten and lashed with little provocation, and receiving no treatment when falling ill. As a pre-Code film, it was also able to show the criminal element more sympathetically than those made after 1934.
The only other movie I'd seen Paul Muni in before this was the wonderful Scarface, also made in 1932. In both cases he comes off with a remarkable intensity, like Cagney in a lot of ways, including his stocky, powerful looking build and quick reflexes. But there's something fundamentally quieter, more self-possessed about him. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang has Muni playing a more regular guy, and here his intensity serves to give depth to an otherwise fairly ordinary man, which helps to convey the film's actual subject, the cruelty of the system in which Allen finds himself. Not just in terms of the penal system, but the general attitude of a society that looks down on people who can't pay for their own food, or who have ambition beyond a comfortable job at home, as Allen first lands into trouble when he becomes a drifter after several unsuccessful attempts to embark on an engineering career. When the ending of the film suggests Allen has no choice but to turn to a life of crime, we believe it.
It's this sense of inevitable doom and the character being punished for operating outside the modes of society that make this film, in my opinion, a clear ancestor of the noir.