Criminal Code, The (1931)

“An eye for an eye: that’s the basis and foundation of the criminal code. Somebody’s got to pay!”

Criminal Code Poster

Synopsis:
A young man (Phillip Holmes) sent to prison for accidental manslaughter by a sympathetic but by-the-books D.A. (Walter Huston) becomes a shell of his former self, yet finds renewed reason for living when he falls in love with Huston’s daughter (Constance Cummings) after Huston becomes warden of the prison. However, Holmes’ loyalty is put to the test when his cellmate (Boris Kalloway) murders the prisoner (Clark Marshall) who squealed on his getaway attempt, and Huston attempts to bully Holmes into confessing what he knows.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is a big fan of this early Howard Hawks flick (based on “a Broadway play by Martin Falvin”), referring to it as a “powerful prison drama” that “expresses one of [Hawks’] frequent themes: both lawmen and criminals must adhere to their own distinct codes”. He writes that it “shows [the] misery of prisoners (guards are brutal, food is awful, cells are tiny and claustrophobic, grounds are overcrowded) and makes clear their desires” — but numerous other films since then have shown the same conditions to equally numbing effects, and with more realistic representation of prisoners from diverse racial backgrounds. The movie also suffers from overly slow pacing at times (perhaps a function of its status as an early “talkie”). With that said, Peary’s assertion that the “picture is full of fine scenes and striking characters” is most certainly true: James Wong Howe’s cinematography and Hawks’ direction make this a consistently visually atmospheric outing. Huston gives a strong central performance in a psychologically complex role, and Boris Karloff “steals the film as Holmes’ slightly wacko cellmate who has ‘an appointment’ with a squealer”. Overall, however, this one is recommended rather than required viewing for film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Walter Huston as Mark Brady
    Criminal Code Huston
  • Boris Karloff (in his first major picture) as Galloway
    Criminal Code Karloff
  • James Wong Howe’s cinematography
    Criminal Code Cinematography
  • Many striking scenes
    Criminal Code Barber
    Criminal Code 215
    Criminal Code Cowering

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly recommended for one-time viewing. Named one of the Best Pictures of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars.

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