Thursday 8 February 2007

The Criminal Code (1931) Howard Hawks

It's always good to see the early Boris Karloff and luckily it's not too hard, given that TCM plays a lot of precodes and he was always a busy man back then. He made no less than seventeen films in 1931 and this is my sixth of them. The one that matters most, of course, not just for 1931 but for his entire career, is Frankenstein, but that came at the end of the year and made him box office dynamite for 1932. Here he's fourth on the bill, the highest name not to make the title card, and he gets plenty of opportunity to show us just why he got picked to play the Monster not too long afterwards.

Walter Huston is the lead, as he so often was back then and justifiably too. He's Martin Brady, who starts out as a tough and fast talking District Attorney, and the Criminal Code of the title is his bible. He obviously cares about what he does, and what he does here is get a young man locked up for ten years for second degree murder even though he had no intent to kill and he was really drunk at the time. We leap forward six years and find him sharing a cell with an oldtimer planning an escape and Karloff's character, Galloway, planning an appointment with the squealer who sent him back inside. Galloway been let out on parole but one drink in a speakeasy got him sent back for parole violation by the man who now works as his Yard Captain. Karloff makes the best of his moments in the spotlight and they're powerfully memorable.

The young boy is Robert Graham, played by someone called Phillips Holmes, who I've never even heard of but who does a solid job. It's far more deep and meaningful than the standard pretty boy role, almost broken after six years of his sentence but revitalised by three months as the new Warden's driver, and Holmes does it all justice, even if he does try a little too hard at points. He seems to have made a decent amount of films but died in a plane collision in 1942. The new warden of course is Martin Brady, the same DA Brady that got him convicted, and he gets most of the rest of the great scenes. Huston is superb here, as I'm discovering he usually was. He was one of the most believable actors ever at displaying both sheer decent integrity and characters with balls the size of dump trucks, often at the same time.

The plot here isn't particularly original, even for early 1931, but it's done far better than many similar films could manage ten, twenty or more years later. Huston and Karloff are great, and Phillips Holmes isn't bad at all, even though he's very much in their shadows. What's most important, though, is that none of the three characters are black and white, no pun intended: all of them have depths and complexities to their personas that makes us think. Warden Brady is the good guy but he's no hero; Galloway is far more heroic but he's a murderer; and Graham starts out an accidental killer but learns to find integrity in the code of his fellow inmates. Another good one from 1931.

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