Based on the 1929 novel and play by future Pulitzer Prize-winner Martin Flavin,* The Criminal Code shows only too well its stage ancestry, like creases in a sheet of paper. Key words and lines of dialogue are often repeated, but in a different context that ironically alters their meaning. (One such line: “It’s what’s in his head that counts.”) Indeed, this tack is set off by the title itself, which refers to two opposing things: one, the law; two, the rules that penitentiary prisoners adhere to, such as the prohibition against “ratting out” a fellow prisoner. As state’s district attorney, Mark Brady regards the “criminal code” of the law as his bible; but when he becomes the warden of a state prison, he finds himself up against the other “criminal code”—that of the prisoners.
Two of the lead performances are over-the-top: barking yet silken-voiced Walter Huston as Brady, who is wrapped up in his “code”; slow-moving, heavy-speaking Boris Karloff as Galloway, Brady’s mirror-image, a vengeful prisoner who is wrapped up in his “code.” Brady proves the more flexible of the two when his love for his daughter, who has fallen in love with one of the prisoners, Robert Graham, trumps his code.
If these two performances are less than satisfactory, two others are magnificent. With his equally wonderful Clyde Griffiths in Josef von Sternberg’s infinitely sad An American Tragedy (1931), from Dreiser, up ahead, Phillips Holmes plays Bob Graham, a 20-year-old boy whom Brady successfully prosecutes for killing a threatening drunk with a water bottle. (Brady boasts that, if he were defending Graham, he would have been able to convince the jury to let the boy go free.) Graham’s ten-year sentence includes lung-polluting work in the prison’s jute mill; but he becomes the chauffeur of Brady and Brady’s daughter, Mary, once Brady is warden. Holmes is poignant. Even better is luminous Constance Cummings as Mary Brady. We root for these two, in part, because both actors approach their material with such truthfulness; their acting is an antidote to the hamming that Huston and especially Karloff give us.
The director is Howard Hawks, whose name for some reason appears in the credits as one of the film’s producers but not as director. Perhaps not surprisingly, given his naturalistic bent, Hawks does not exploit the potential for visual symmetry inside the prison; however, he devises excellent overhead shots of prisoners marching, en masse and in synchronized order, into the prison yard, after which they disperse into a raggedy crowd. Thus the military discipline that is demanded of them briefly—and electrifyingly—yields to the relief of a kind of release. The symmetrical machine that their marching suggests becomes a panorama of individuals. This is a visual, purely cinematic coup that Hawks was able to slip in.
See this film, then. Look past Karloff and Huston, who says “Yeah” so often—too often—that one wonders if Edward G. Robinson originated the role on Broadway.
* Flavin won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1944 novel Journey in the Dark.