Action and Integrity in The Fugitive
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ACTION AND INTEGRITY IN THE FUGITIVE Aeon J. Skoble The Fugitive aired on ABC from 1963 to 1967 and starred David Janssen in the title role of Dr. Richard Kimble, on the run from the law, wanted for a crime he did not commit. It was classic TV noir, both stylistically and thematically. In terms of the noir aesthetic—the first three seasons were in black and white, and even though the fourth season was in color, for its entire run—the series was filmed with a distinctly noir sensibility: unusual and unsettling camera angles, shots and scenes that emphasized the loneliness and isolation ofthe protagonist, extensive use of alleyways, warehouses, deserted streets at night, and fleabag hotels, and of course a voice-over narration . Thematically, film noir is often characterized as involving an inversion of values; this is practically guaranteed by the premise of The Fugitive: a wrongly accused man trying to capture the real killer while being pursued by law enforcement. This is what makes The Fugitive such compelling TV noir. Every week, Richard Kimble is obliged to live an underground existence and is compelled to adopt a wary, if not paranoid, stance toward not only law-enforcement officers but all decent people. As we see in many flashbacks over the run ofthe series (and summarized in the opening to every episode), one night, Kimble returns home to see a one-armed man fleeing his house. Inside, he finds his wife, murdered. But the police do not believe his story about a one-armed man, and neither does a jury, which has heard that Kimble and his wife had had a terrible argument that night. Kimble is sentenced to death, but en route to death row, as we hear in the series' voice-over opening, "fate moves its huge hand," and the train is derailed, allowing Kimble to escape. The series chronicles his quest to find the one-armed man, and the simultaneous quest by "the police lieutenant 84 Aeon J. Skoble obsessed with" recapturing Kimble, Lieutenant Philip Gerard (Barry Morse). In the pilot, we see a longer montage ofbackstory and narration, including a scene of Kimble looking out of the window of his train just before it crashes as the narrator (William Conrad) intones "Richard Kimble ponders his fate as he looks at the world for the last time ... and sees only darkness. But in the darkness, fate moves its huge hand." Over the course of the first season, the opening flashback and narration were trimmed down, and by the second season, had become "The Fugitive, a QM Production, starring David Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimble, an innocent victim of blind justice, falsely convicted of the murder of his wife, reprieved by fate when a train wreck freed him en route to the death house; freed him to hide in lonely desperation, to change his identity, to toil at many jobs; freed him to search for a one-armed man he saw leave the scene of the crime; freed him to run before the relentless pursuit of the police lieutenant obsessed with his capture."1 Superficially, then, the police are the bad guys, while the good guy is a fugitive from justice; hence the seeming inversion of values. At a deeper level, though, each episode of The Fugitive is a self-contained morality play, in which the protagonists ongoing story intertwines with another tale concerning people he has become involved with: a boy who needs to get to a hospital, a woman with an abusive husband, a man who gets in trouble and needs help, workers oppressed by a sadistic boss.2 The protagonist of this morality play, Dr. Richard Kimble, frequently finds himself in a dilemma: Can he do the right thing in his interactions with others while at the same time avoiding detection by the authorities? Another way to characterize that dilemma is this: Can he simultaneously maintain his integrity and his safety? Although it sometimes seems to exacerbate the situation, Kimble's integrity turns out to be one ofhis chief assets. I've argued in previous essays on film noir that the "standard view" of noir as involving moral ambiguity is mistaken, that noir is better understood as demonstrating moral clarity and practical reason.3 The Fugitive is yet another source of examples of this, as Kimble is consistently shown making tough decisions about what (to him) are clearly defined standards of right and wrong, struggling to preserve his integrity (and succeeding), doing the...


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Subject Headings

  • Detective and mystery television programs -- United States -- History and criticism.
  • Fantasy television programs -- United States -- History and criticism.
  • Film noir -- United States -- History and criticism.
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