Director: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: Martin Flavin (stage play), Fred Niblo Jr., Seton I. Miller
Starring: Walter Huston, Phillips Holmes, Boris Karloff
Duration: 97 min
BBFC Certification: PG
In the annals of cinema, Howard Hawks strikes a more unusual claim than most. Here is a director behind some of the greatest films of Hollywood’s Golden Age and beyond, whose roster of credits is undeniably formidable – from the original Scarface, to Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, Red River, The Big Sleep and Rio Bravo, his filmography exhibits not just the talents of a master filmmaker, but one who showcases the unique ability to make defining classics across several distinct genres. From crime epics to comedies to Westerns, Hawks’ films are frequently less expert genre exercises than actually movies that defined and set the template for that genre itself. Yet unlike, say, Kubrick, (who also mastered several genres and made a classic in each of them) Hawks is a name relatively unknown outside of cinephile circles and enthusiasts. Even Leonard Matlin called him ‘the greatest American director who is not a household name’. Whether you are familiar with him or not, however, there is no denying his importance to Hollywood history, which makes this new Blu Ray from Indicator such a vital and fascinating release.
The Criminal Code finds Hawks, if not at the start of his career, then certainly at a stage before he had made any of his ‘classic’ films, the first of which, Scarface, would follow just one year later in 1931. That is not to say that he was an unknown quantity at this point. Having made several films during the silent era (The Criminal Code was only his second sound film) he was actually a director who had seen a significant degree of success. He was actively sought out to helm the film by a then fledging Columbia Pictures that was looking to establish itself upon the Hollywood firmament with a series of prestige films.
Based upon Martin Flavin’s 1929 play of the same name, the story is relatively simple. Robert Graham (Phillips Holmes) is convicted and imprisoned after getting caught up in a fateful drunken brawl. The driving force behind the conviction, District Attorney Mark Brady (Walter Huston) pushes for a guilty verdict despite the obvious areas of grey in the case. When Brady subsequently becomes Warden of the prison where Graham is incarcerated, he is forced to face the consequences of his earlier actions. Yet before Brady has a chance to atone, events conspire to force both men into a battle of wills where the true meaning of ‘The Criminal Code’ is put to the test.
The film actually begins in an unexpected manner. Called in to investigate a nightclub brawl, two police detectives spend all their time bickering about a card game in a manner that foreshadows Hawks’ later screwball comedies. For these first five minutes or so, you are unsure exactly what kind of film you are watching…till we get to the District Attorney’s office and the mechanisms and tropes of a more serious narrative kick into gear. After this, despite a few moments of macabre humour, the film never veers away from its more thoughtful exploration of moral values, honour and loyalty. Yet despite being based on a play and dealing with ‘weighty’ themes, the film never allows itself to get dragged down by its message, wearing those themes lightly enough to ensure that plot takes as much precedence as polemic.
The Criminal Code’s theatrical origins mean that it is restricted to only a half dozen locations or so. Yet what could have been stuffy and dry is transformed by Hawks’ hand (along with not one, but two cinematographers) into a consistently engaging visual experience. Two sequences utilising overlapping dissolves (skills no doubt recalled from his silent film work) are particular standouts. The prison where the majority of the film is set is captured with an authentic sense of scale and place; scenes in the prison yard are particularly impressive, not just for their scope but for the atmosphere they evoke, with Hawks using many actual ex-cons as extras.
The film’s set pieces, too, are brilliantly handled. A stroll Brady takes around the prison yard positively crackles with tension while a climatic set piece is wonderfully controlled, it’s cold simplicity ensuring that it oozes with understated menace. These gripping moments more than help to make up for the film’s weaker passages. The pace slackens halfway through as important relationships are gradually set up and I found the amount of freedom Phillips Holmes’ character has (with the governor’s daughter, no less!) stretches credibility slightly.
What helps to hold the film up during its less engaging moments are the actors and their performances. Phillips Holmes is perfect as the rather tragic Graham, his angelic features helping to underline the innocence and naivety that is vital in encouraging Brady’s need to atone. Brady himself is brilliantly performed by Walter Huston (father of John and grandfather of Angelica!), bringing a rugged decency and a comic twinkle to what could have been a rather dry patriarchal figure. Yet the stand out performance for me was…Boris Karloff.
Yes, you read that right. Just one year before Frankenstein launched him as a worldwide star, Karloff plays fellow prisoner Galloway with a sense of combustible menace. His hulking, controlled stillness combines perfectly with the blunt, threatening delivery of his lines. Yet Karloff doesn’t create a two-dimensional stereotype, instead imbuing Galloway with enough layers and nuance to make him one of the film’s most memorable and effective characters. Apparently, this was the film that directly led to Karloff’s casting as Frankenstein’s Monster and it is not hard to see why. Working as a busy jobbing actor up until this point, his work in The Criminal Code is clearly that of a future star in the making.
This sense of nuance is actually one of the film’s most positive traits. Made pre-code, Hawks was allowed to explore the theme of criminality and criminals in a manner that wasn’t just blandly pejorative. Unlike Scarface (as Nora Fiore points out in her commentary) The Criminal Code actually challenges widespread assumptions about criminals. Where his subsequent film was concerned with exploring a classic narrative arc of a criminal’s rise and fall through sensationally stylised violence, The Criminal Code provides a fascinating counter argument. While it ultimately may not be as memorable or influential, it is arguably a deeper, more considered film and should be watched and enjoyed for that alone.
While all of The Criminal Code’s positives don’t collate, then, into a classic film, they nonetheless ensure that it is never less than an engaging, interesting watch. Ultimately, it is a vital one too. For fans of classic Hollywood, this is an important film to own, not necessarily because of its own greatness but for the greatness it foreshadows. With Hawks’ trademark no nonsense, unsentimental world view already firmly in place and with Karloff dominating the shadows like a monster ready to burst out of it’s cage, it captures two key Hollywood personas emerging from a embryonic state, on the cusp of becoming legends in their own respective fields.
Powerhouse Films brings The Criminal Code to Blu Ray via their Indicator label. The film is sourced from a HD remaster and, considering it is now less than a decade away from being a hundred years old, it looks fantastic throughout, with only a tiny hint of print damage popping up, but so infrequently as to be barely noticeable. David Mackenzie of Fidelity in Motion performs his typically peerless encoding work. Presented in its original mono audio, the sound is crisp and legible, enabling you to hear Walter Huston’s 101 different deliveries of ‘yeah’ with perfect clarity.
Special Features Include:
- Audio commentary with film historian Nora Fiore (2021)
- Behind the Mask (2021, 26 mins): author and critic Kim Newman discusses the non-horror career of actor Boris Karloff
- Codes and Convictions (2021, 30 mins): video essay by Jonathan Bygraves on the many adaptations of Marvin Flavin’s The Criminal Code
- The Howard Hawks Masterclass with John Carpenter (1997, 36 mins): archival audio recording of a presentation by the cult filmmaker from the British Film Institute’s 1997 Howard Hawks retrospective at the National Film Theatre, London
- Lux Radio Theatre: ‘The Criminal Code’ (1939, 59 mins): radio adaptation starring Edward G Robinson, Beverly Roberts and Paul Guilfoyle
- Image galleries: on-set and promotional photography from The Criminal Code and its lost Spanish-language version, El código penal
- New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
- Limited edition exclusive 36-page booklet with a new essay by Philip Kemp, Howard Hawks on The Criminal Code, an archival article on Hawks by Henri Langlois, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and film credits
The disc comes with a decent amount of extras that help to contextualise and explore the film. First up is a feature length commentary from Nora Fiore, who provides an enthusiastic track balancing trivia about the movie along with her own critical analysis of Hawks’ work in The Criminal Code.
Behind the Mask sees horror expert Kim Newman provide a brief overview of Boris Karloff’s career, with the focus more on his non-horror work (what a shame that his only collaboration with John Ford turned out to be a disappointment!) As ever with Newman, he is a fun and engaging host who will no doubt make you want to seek out some key entries in Karloff’s canon beyond the famous horror titles.
Codes and Conventions provides a really interesting look at the various other adaptations of Martin Flavin’s play. Using just text (by Jonathan Bygraves) and photos from a lost Spanish version of the film (that was shot concurrently with Hawks’ original) then with footage from two further adaptions from 1938 and 1950 (the latter staring Glenn Ford) played side by side with Hawks’ 1930 version, it provides an enlightening look at different approaches to the source material.
The Howard Hawks Masterclass with John Carpenter is a lively talk given by the horror maestro that runs at just over half an hour. Hawks was seemingly a huge influence on Carpenter (he even re-made Hawks’ sole foray into sci-fi with the peerless The Thing) and here the director gives an engaging and fun exploration of his work. Played out with just the audio against a black screen, the sound (recorded at the BFI in 1997) is clear and legible throughout, aside from several audience questions at the end, which get a bit lost. Luckily the host repeats these to Carpenter often enough so you never loose track.
Next, Indicator provide us with a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of Galvin’s play. More melodramatic than Hawks’ version, it is nevertheless an interesting listen, especially considering that Edward G. Robinson plays the role of Brady. Recorded in front of a live audience, the play is introduced by Cecil B. DeMille, no less, and there is even a short Q&A with Robinson and his wife at the end.
The package is rounded out with promotional and behind the scenes stills from both The Criminal Code and El código (the lost Spanish language version) as well as a typically high quality booklet that provides further analysis and background from Phillip Kemp, contemporary critical reviews and an archival 1960s article on Hawks. The standout of the booklet, however, is a short interview with Hawks himself.