Music: Sam Perry Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Starring: Walter Huston, Phillips Holmes, Constance Cummings and Boris Karloff
Frankenstein at Universal, Boris Karloff always felt that this was the film that made him a star. Working for Columbia on poverty row, the studio had no problem hiring Karloff to reprise the role he had played on Broadway rather than getting an established character actor as a larger studio certainly would have done. It was through his appearance in The Criminal Code that he came to the attention of James Whale and the rest, as they say, is history. But Karloff already had a long history of playing heavies in crime dramas dating back to the silent era because of his distinctive looks. By the time of this film he had been in over sixty films. The play had been written by Martin Flavin and his title has a nice double meaning. It’s not only the legal code by which the criminals are convicted, but it is also the code that the criminals live by in prison. In this case it has to do with a squealer, someone who tells the authorities what other prisoners are doing. The film was the first of four films that Howard Hawks would make for Columbia, though the director would go right from this film into another crime drama, Scarface with Paul Muni, which was released through United Artists.
The film begins with a call to the police and two detectives being sent out to a nightclub. Phillips Holmes is arrested after hitting another man with a bottle and wounding him seriously. Mary Doran is a witness, having danced with both men, and she’s brought before D.A. Walter Huston to be interviewed. She says that Holmes thought the other man was reaching for a gun, and then he dismisses her. When Holmes comes before him, Huston tells him that the man died. And while Huston realizes it was an accident, he’s going to send him to prison because that’s what the law demands. Six years later Holmes is getting stir crazy, but still has four years to go on his sentence. One of his cellmates, Otto Hoffman, is looking at twenty years and wants to break out. Holmes, of course, wants to go too, but his other cellmate, Boris Karloff, tells him the odds are against him, especially with so little time for him to go. The next day the cons learn that Huston is going to be the new warden, after losing a bid for governor, and suddenly no one is anxious to leave just yet, considering how many of them he put away. Now they’re thinking about revenge rather than escape. But Huston’s fearlessness takes the starch out of them, at least momentarily. After Holmes nearly cracks again in the textile mile, he’s brought to Huston’s office and the warden makes him his driver.
Constance Cummings plays Huston’s daughter, who often uses Holmes to drive her to town. He becomes so infatuated with her that it straightens him out to the point where he feels almost normal. Unfortunately, Holmes gets caught up in the politics of the prisoners and winds up just as unlucky as he was on the outside. With the help of the great James Wong Howe, director Howard Hawks does some nice work with the camera, tracking along behind Huston as he strolls through the prison yard, and with interesting use of the shadows of the cell bars and effective close ups. He also makes dramatic use of sound throughout the film. Though there are definite individuals in the prison, like Karloff and Holmes, or Andy Devine, Hawks dehumanizes the prisoners by slowly marching them in and out of the yard or through the prison like Fritz Lang’s extras in Metropolis. Walter Huston puts in one of his solid, early thirties performances but Phillips Holmes, who was tremendous in Josef von Sternberg’s An American Tragedy, is every bit Huston’s equal. And of course Karloff is also good in his supporting role. The film is definitely a plea for prison reform, but things have only become worse in the time since. The Criminal Code isn’t the best crime drama of the era, but it is worth watching for Hawks’ direction and some terrific acting performances.