High and Low: Class and Identity in The Fugitive

fugitiveWith the recent spate of manhunts in the news (L.A., Boston), I have been thinking a lot about one of my favorite movies, The Fugitive. Since it came out in 1993, I have seen it many times, mostly in some kind of edited version on TV. It’s an action movie, but there is very little violence and no sex or even nudity, making it perfect Saturday afternoon slot filler for the networks. Harrison Ford, with understated Midwestern charm, plays Dr. Richard Kimble, a surgeon and husband forced into the role of action hero after being falsely accused of murdering his wife. He is not your typical action hero: he has no martial arts or military training (in one scene he handles a gun like one might a dirty diaper). Instead he has medical training (stitching and bandaging wounds), and most importantly, his wits. So for an action movie it retains a certain amount of verisimilitude. He never fights off twenty armed men with his fists or drives a car in reverse through oncoming traffic while on fire or anything.

The narrative implausibilities that do haunt the film reveal a subtext about the American class system and Kimble’s movement or journey through that system. Remember, for example, the scene where Kimble takes what Tommy Lee Jones’ character (Gerard) refers to as “a peter pan” off a very high dam, plunging head first into the water. In reality the average man would be killed or at least severely injured by the fall, but moments later Kimble washes up on shore relatively unharmed. The scene requires a suspension of disbelief or at least a rationalization of the possibility of survival. But this suspension gives us the space to ask: what if Kimble does not survive the fall at all, but rather knowingly kills himself so that he may reenter the social system? What the movie dramatizes — signaled by this peter pan moment — is Kimble’s rebirth and ascension up the economic ladder.  At this point in the movie, Kimble has been convicted of murdering his wife; the van that transports him to prison has crashed allowing him to escape, resulting in an intense and short lived manhunt wherein he is cornered by Gerard. After Kimble’s fall the movie returns to Chicago, time has passed, and the focus shifts to Gerard. When Kimble does reappear, or is reborn, he is a homeless vagrant, seemingly unrecognizable to the rest of the world.

Set in winter, the movie has a brackish look about it, a sort of dishwater gray. It feels very Midwestern and working class. Except for the interior shots of high society galas and fundraisers — where everything shimmers and jingles — and Kimble’s house — where we see the Doctor’s wife spreading rose petals moments before she is brained — the movie is mostly shivering and scowling; a celebration of the Styrofoam-cup contingent, the stackers of wheat. The two Chicagos represented in the movie feel distinctly separate, segregated even. So in the beginning when the sausage-faced, regionally accented detectives are interviewing our tuxedoed hero, it’s as if he has wandered into the wrong neighborhood and is now dangerously out of place. At the end of the movie, we see Kimble in a similar clash of classes, but with the roles reversed.

However, in the section that culminates in Kimble’s leap to death, he is not of either class. He is now an escaped convict pursued by cops and federal agents in a style reminiscent of other escaped prisoner movies – Cool Hand Luke being the most obvious. There are leg irons, blood hounds, the orange jumpsuit, cross cuts between blood hounds and a stumbling, exhausted escapee. As a convict, he has been essentially kicked out of society. Gerard, in an oft parodied speech where every imaginable house is intoned, makes a point to emphasize Kimble’s title – “Doctor.” It is spoken ironically, as a kind of invective. The two identities – doctor and fugitive – are incompatible. In the following scene, Kimble, sneaking into a hospital to suture and bandage wounds sustained in the crash, attempts to reassume his role as doctor. He has the coat and stethoscope, but is quickly recognized as an imposter by a patient whom he goes out of his way to provide care (the prison guard injured in the crash that allows Kimble’s escape). Contrast this to the scenes after his fall, his death, in which he is never recognized. This is not because he looks different, it’s because he is different. This is the other implausibility of the movie, one that Gerard himself addresses after he finds Kimble has been working as a janitor in a hospital. How does Kimble keep evading detection? How does the most wanted and recognizable man in Chicago maintain anonymity? It is because the Kimble who existed before the fall, “Doctor” Richard Kimble, doesn’t exist anymore. He can’t be recognized, because there is no one to recognize. Not unlike an immigrant experience, he has remade himself. He washes up onshore, begs a ride and some money, rents a basement apartment in an immigrant community, and then gets a job cleaning other people’s shit. He exists on the fringes of society, a ghost.

From the beginning of the movie, Kimble maintains that a one-armed man has killed his wife, a theory for which he is pilloried, yet pursues for the entirety of the second half of the movie. The one-armed man turns out to be an ex-cop maimed in the line of duty. And although we eventually find out that he is Kimble’s wife’s murderer, the narrative suggests he is not the real criminal, or true object of Kimble’s or the movie’s scorn. The one-armed man is just a working class pawn whose mistake was to think he could become part of the bourgeoisie. The true criminal is Kimble’s former colleague, Dr. Nichols (played by Jeroen Krabbe), an urbane snoot with a European accent who is in cahoots with big pharma.

The final showdown between Kimble (now our working class hero) and Nichols (the effete intellectual) mirrors the opening scenes of Kimble being interrogated by the police. He is out of place again, but this time crashing a fancy banquet in a blazer. He is the accuser not the accused. After the plot details are worked out the fisticuffs commence and continue until they are on the roof of the building. Here Kimble has made it back from the depths of society to, literally, the very top of it. However, the two eventually crash through a sky light, land on an elevator, which descends down, down, down to the hotel laundry, a kind of factory floor. Nichols is the one who has wandered into the wrong neighborhood. Kimble, now on his home turf, subdues his oppressor and emerges victorious.

The movie then seems to be championing the American myth of the working class, the honest, hard working “folks” who live on Main Street. Kimble is our hero, but only because he has worked his way up, become one of us (the “us” we have to constantly tell ourselves we are). It is interesting to think that Alec Baldwin was originally cast as Kimble before Harrison Ford took over the role. He seems too debonair, too East Coast now. Baldwin does have a working class background, but where Ford is rough-hewn lumber (he was a carpenter after all), Baldwin is polished chrome. It’s hard to imagine Ford giving the “I am God” speech from Malice or cursing out Jack Lemmon in Glen Gary Glen Ross. On the other hand, it is equally impossible to imagine Alec Baldwin as Indiana Jones, the sweaty archaeologist preferring desert boots to bow ties.