Helen: Jim, why haven't you come before?
Jim: I couldn't, I was afraid to.
Helen: But you could have written. It's been almost a year since you escaped.
Jim: But I haven't escaped. They're still after me. They'll always be after me. I've had jobs but I can't keep them. Something happens. Someone turns up. I hide in rooms all day and travel by night. No friends. No rest. No peace.
Helen: How do you live?
James Allen: I steal.
In the famous last scene of this film James Allen (excellent acting by Paul Muni) appears from the shadows of the night to bid farewell to her lover before disappearing in the dark The prison system hasn’t given him any chances and has broken his life and respectability.
Allen, a war veteran had refused to work in a routine factory job because he wanted something else in life: “I don't want to be spending the rest of my life answering a factory whistle instead of a bugle call… I want to do something worthwhile… life is more important than a medal on my chest or a stupid, insignificant job”
His ambition was to build bridges as an engineer, however he had a difficult start and in the south he was involved in a crime. In spite of being innocent he was sentenced to ten years of hard labour.
After some months of harsh conditions he manages to escape with the help of some inmates and later moves to Chicago where he finds a good job and respectability.
But Marie (Glenda Farrell) - a primitive femme fatale – blackmails him and he returns to the south to serve for some weeks to get his pardon.
However the southern justice doesn’t keep its promise and he is confined for years in a tougher camp. Eventually he manages to escape together with inmate Bomber (Edward Ellis) but he will be a chased character, forced to live in the shadows…The film (based on an autobiographic novel by Robert Elliot Burns was controversial at the time of its release – especially in the Southern States - and it contributed to the abolition of forced labour in the US. As one of the tagline of the film reads: "Six sticks of dynamite that blasted his way to freedom...and awoke America's conscience!"