Be it resolved: The Fugitive is a perfect movie.
This may seem a strong claim, and maybe it is. But I'm not talking about "perfect" in the normal sense of "perfect", to indicate that The Fugitive has no flaws at all. No, I'm talking "perfect" in, if you will, the "baseball" sense of the word. In baseball, a pitcher has thrown a "perfect game" if he doesn't allow a single opposing hitter to reach base. It's even more impressive than a no-hitter: it's no walks, no errors, no passed balls on third strikes, no batters hit-by-pitch, no nothing. No baserunners. At all.
And yet, you can watch any of the small number of perfect games in baseball history and, if you know baseball well, you can pick out imperfections. Maybe the outfielders are shied toward left a little too much at one point, so when a guy hits it deep to right, the right fielder has to sprint a long way to run down the ball. Or maybe the shortstop boots a grounder and only just baaaaarely manages to get the ball back up and across the field to the first basemen's glove a tenth of a second before the runner's foot lands on the bag. Or maybe the pitcher himself goes to a 3-0 count on a hitter before retiring him on a lazy pop-up or an easy grounder.
The game has flaws...and yet not one of those flaws matters, in the end. Not one of them has any effect on the end result. The game is perfect.
The Fugitive is like that. It has flaws. It has imperfections. But none of them matters. In the end, the movie is perfect.
Watching it again a few weeks ago, for the first time in a number of years, I was amazed at how well the suspense in the film still works. I know what happens, I know how it ends. And yet, I witnessed the whitening anew of my knuckles when Dr. Richard Kimble is scrambling about the innards of a dam, or finding escape into the crowd on St. Patrick's Day in downtown Chicago harder than one might think, or closing in on his wife's murderers even as the police close in on him. The Fugitive never fails to draw me in. Never, ever.
I'm sure the story is familiar: Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford), a noted Chicago surgeon, comes home one night from work, after having been called in to perform a delicate emergency surgery, to find his wife, Helen, brutally murdered (shot and bludgeoned). Worse, the assailant is still there, and in grappling with him, Kimble notices the man's distinctive feature: he is one-armed and wears a prosthesis. The one-armed man gets away, and Kimble is left to explain all this to the police, who don't buy any of it and quickly end up booking Kimble for Helen's murder. Kimble's insistence on his innocence and his fingering of a "one-armed man" as the murderer fall on deaf ears, all the way to his conviction and sentence of death. Ouch.
So Kimble is sent on a bus from court in Chicago to the state penitentiary, somewhere in the south of the state. On the way there, however, something goes awry, and the bus ends up on its side across a pair of railroad tracks. The guards and prisoners start scrambling to get out, Kimble last of all...and the light of an approaching train appears. Ouch, again.
After the massive train wreck (one of the most impressive bits of mayhem ever filmed, in my opinion), Kimble finds himself free. And he runs, following the path of a river. Soon, however, Kimble's trail is picked up by US Marshall Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones), who is confident, competent, perceptive, and deeply intelligent. Thus begins one of the best cat-and-mouse games in movie history, and what's so great about it is that it's a double game of cat-and-mouse: Kimble is fleeing Gerard even as he is pursuing Helen's murderer.
The film has lots of fine set pieces, including the train wreck, the chase through the bowels of the dam, and so on. As good as the set pieces are, though, it's all the stuff in between that really makes the movie work as brilliantly as it does.
:: The film really leaves a lot of good stuff to the viewer. Gerard is professional to the hilt, and yet he's put together a really good team where everyone knows one another well and respects one another. We see all this just in the way they talk to each other and they way they conduct themselves around one another; there's never that type of bit that a less well-written film would throw in ("Geez, Sam, the way this guy keeps getting away from us really reminds me of that guy we were chasing in San Francisco that time, huh?").
Likewise, even better, we see, without ever once having it stated, that Gerard is gradually figuring out the case behind Richard Kimble's arrest and conviction. There is never a moment where someone says, "Hey, Gerard, you're not startin' to doubt this guy's guilt, are you?" But we see this happening, slowly and gradually, as the trail Gerard follows leads him into the case and into contact with the same clues that Kimble himself is finding. He's slowly putting the pieces together himself, even as he has already told Kimble that he's not interested in the crime. Only near the very end of the movie, when Gerard has to shout out to Kimble, "I know you're innocent!", is it ever stated outright.
:: I can't think of any moment in the film where anyone does anything that is outright stupid for the simple reason that the plot needs that someone to do that thing to keep the plot moving along.
:: Richard Kimble takes so many amazing risks in this film, risks that he thinks through as best he can and only takes when he decides that the risk is the only way of moving forward. I'm not just talking about his sneaking into a hospital early on, in order to stitch up his wounds and get clothes and put together the next part of his escape in an environment he is familiar with; and I'm not just talking about his leap from the brink of the dam, which is the only choice he has (aside from accepting recapture). For my money, the most amazing risk in the film is when he finally learns the identity of the one-armed man. Kimble tracks the man down and discovers evidence in the man's house that ties him to other people in Kimble's world – doctors from his former hospital, pharmaceutical executives he met at a banquet the night his wife was murdered. Kimble has found...something, but he doesn't know what. He's found a piece of the puzzle. He knows it's a big piece, but he knows that he can't put the puzzle together. So he does something amazing.
He calls Gerard from the one-armed man's home, allowing the call to go on long enough for the trace to be completed. He knows that Gerard will come, even though he'll be long gone by the time Gerard arrives. So what is he doing? He's making the only move he can: he is gambling that Gerard will find the pieces and, with his own investigative abilities that Kimble himself doesn't have, help put the puzzle together for him. And he challenges Gerard to do what he'd already said he didn't: he challenges Gerard to care about the case.
Kimble has no way of knowing if this will work. He has no way of knowing if Gerard will start digging into the life of Sykes, the one-armed man, and uncover the man's unsavory dealings. He has no way of knowing what Sykes's unsavory dealings even are. Kimble knows that he can't flush out the bad guys himself, so he hopes that Gerard will do it for him.
:: The cinematography of The Fugitive is fascinating. Transitions and the passage of time are often signified in the movie by sweeping, aerial shots of downtown Chicago. Many of these shots have the camera looking straight down on the city streets as the buildings float by the lens, some of the taller ones coming up so high that it's almost as if the camera may well brush their roofs or radio antennae. I'm not sure that these shots are symbolic in any way – maybe they're symbolic of Richard Kimble's attempts to perceive key details from a very far vantage point that is constantly moving – but they are certainly very stylish.
:: I love how the one time the film breaks away from Kimble's chase to give us a moment of his character is when he is standing around in the Cook County Hospital ER, in his stolen janitor's uniform, as a bunch of injured kids are brought in. He doesn't even consider doing anything other than what he does here: grab a kid's X-rays, make a diagnosis that the ER people have missed, and take the kid to the ER after faking a signature on the orders. (There's even a funny medical in-joke here, referring to the legendarily awful handwriting of most doctors.) It's not really a moment of great risk, in terms of capture, but it is a moment of risk in that it limits Kimble's movements in the future. But he can't think in those terms; he has to help that kid at that moment.
So what are the apparent flaws in the film? Well, a couple jump to mind. One would think that if a renegade escaped convict could elude capture and still manage to nail down the identity, location, and motive of the "real killer", all on his own, then surely the Chicago Police Department could have turned up some evidence that maybe, just maybe, their prime suspect was, in fact, innocent. Kimble's investigations are all pretty straightforward: he remembers damaging the killer's prosthetic arm in the struggle, so he reasons that the killer would have to go in to have his arm adjusted. So he checks those records and finds a group of one-armed men who did just that shortly after the date of the murder. Then he follows up on each one, learning that one is dead, another is already incarcerated, and that another is...a fellow with ties to medical people. You'd think the police, or Kimble's own lawyer's investigators, could have come up with some of this.
Also, Kimble seems to have enough money to stay on the lam for a while, doesn't he? Sure, he steals a wallet and borrows money from a friend (who later turns out not to be a friend after all), but he rents two different rooms, buys clothes and food, purchases stuff to make fake IDs with, and so on.
But those are really small flaws overall, in one of the most effective thrillers ever made.