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CRIMINAL CODE, THE (director: Howard Hawks; screenwriters: based on the play by Martin Flavin/Seton I. Miller/Fred Niblo Jr.; cinematographer: James Wong Howe/Ted Tetzlaff; editor: Edward Curtiss; music: Sam Perry; cast: Walter Huston (District Attorney/Warden Martin Brady), Phillips Holmes (Robert Graham), Constance Cummings (Mary Brady), Boris Karloff (Ned Galloway), DeWitt Jennings (Yard Captain Gleason), Mary Doran (Gertrude Williams), Ethel Wales (Katie Ryan), Clark Marshall (Runch), John Sheehan (McManus), Otto Hoffman (Jim Fales), Arthur Hoyt (Leonard Nettleford), John St. Polis (Dr. Rinewulf); Runtime: 98; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Harry Cohn; Columbia Pictures; 1931)
“Unsentimental prison drama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Howard Hawks’ (“Scarface”/”Today We Live”/”The Barbary Coast”) early talky prison melodrama was remade in 1938 as Penitentiary and in 1950 as Convicted. It’s based on a play by Martin Flavin; the screenwriters are Fred Niblo Jr. and Seton I. Miller. It raises some critical moral points about following the letter of the law, but is somewhat spoiled by unconvincing melodramatics at times and a contrived conclusion that was hard to swallow. The excellent performance by Walter Huston saves one scene from being a disaster, as Huston is the new warden facing down an angry mob of noisy hissing prisoners by his lonesome when unarmed. Somehow the scene, a risible one in the hands of most directors, under Hawks maintains a level of suspense.

To celebrate his 20th birthday Bob Graham (Phillips Holmes) a lonely, straight-arrow Wall Street clerk fresh from the country, picks up Gertrude Williams (Mary Doran) and she takes him to a dance hall/speakeasy, Spellman’s cafe, where he accidentally, while drunk on gin, kills a man who was getting fresh with her by tossing a water decanter at him when he thought he was reaching for a gun. Relentless conviction minded District Attorney Martin Brady (Walter Huston), believing wholeheartedly in doing his duty to get convictions and in the merits of the criminal code, presses for manslaughter even though he knows if he were a defense lawyer he could easily get him off on a self-defense plea. Bob’s brokerage firm supplies incompetent attorney Nettleford, a corporation lawyer, to defend him and Bob is convicted and sentenced to ten years. The film skips to six years later and Bob is having a nervous breakdown in prison while working in the jute mill. In the meantime, the ambitious Brady lost in his bid to become governor and becomes the newly appointed warden that houses over 2,500 men inmates and some 1,000 of them he put there. Brady moves into the prison with his lovely daughter Mary (Constance Cummings) and frail housekeeper Katie Ryan. When the prison doctor (John St. Polis) requests a change of occupation for the mentally and physically ailing Bob, whom he believes not to be a criminal type, the warden concurs and makes him his chauffeur. The kid falls in love with the sweet Mary, and her pop fights to get him a parole for good behavior. But when Bob’s cellmate Jim Fales goes on a prison break, he’s ratted out by Runch and killed. The warden’s butler Galloway (Boris Karloff), also a cellmate, plunges a knife into Runch for payback, who was kept for security reasons in the warden’s office. Unfortunately Bob was there at the time and refused to squeal. He’s sent to the dungeon for solitary confinement and unmercifully grilled there by the brutish captain of the guards, Gleason (DeWitt Jennings). Mary returns from her upstate stay with a relative and tells pop she loves Bob, and he promises to risk his career by getting the boy free despite his not squealing (after all he’s also following a code: the criminal code).

In this unsentimental prison drama Bob battles to keep his sanity, while the warden must question his firm belief that the criminal code, calling for “an eye for eye,” is the best way for him to serve the people. The warden believes it’s his professional duty to provide justice by following the code, even if the justice is a vengeful and misplaced one. Hawks never moralizes, but allows the action to freely flow to point out how unjust that kind of rigid attitude toward the law is; in fact, it’s no different from Karloff’s revenge by murder. Hawks’ concerns he had throughout his career are ably raised here – professionalism, loyalty and betrayal.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”