Paul Muni is not an actor that I can say is a favorite of mine, in fact his performance style annoys me quite a bit because he usually shows parts of a great performance but tends to almost ruin what good he does through pointless overacting. It really would not be so bad if he overacted all the time, instead he shows signs of an intelligent natural performance, but for no reason likes to throw in some very overacting moments.
Luckily his performance as James Allen is not like many of his performances, and frankly from what I have seen his overacting tendencies is something he grew to do a little later than this performance. The film opens with James in the Allen as just a normal guy who wants to get a job where he is able to create something after gets out of the army, and no longer wants to do just a normal routine.
Muni is not amazing early on here, but he is natural, something that he usually has trouble with. He makes James Allen likable enough that we will want to follow him through his story. Also the fact that he portrays James as just a rather normal fellow makes his story seem more realistic, as well as easier to be able to empathize with.
James Allen soon finds himself in trouble than in a chain gang, which he desperately wants to escape from. Muni is good as we follow him through his escape, as well as his success for his time, than his hardships once again. It not not exceedingly complex, but Muni acts well as just a normal man in a difficult situation. He makes us properly feel with him his frustrations, as well as his joys quite well.
James Allen though undergoes a few more changes near the end of the film, when he genuinely becomes hardened by his experiences. Muni is very effective in showing how the brutality he has faced truly taken a toll on James. This is not an amazing performance by Paul Muni, but it certainly is one of his better ones because he acts as a realistic center of a film, that certainly needed one.