Howard Hawks's THE CRIMINAL CODE is an archetypal early-talkie prison movie with a classic performance by Walter Huston as a tough warden whose favorite word--and seemingly that of every other character in the film--is "Yeah." After accidentally killing the son of a politician during a
drunken barroom brawl, Robert Graham (Phillips Holmes) is railroaded to jail by the politically ambitious district attorney Mark Brady (Walter Huston). Graham is sentenced to serve ten years for manslaughter, despite Brady's sympathy for the boy and his admission to a colleague that Graham could
probably get off if he had a good lawyer. Six years later, Brady, after losing the race for governor, becomes warden of the prison where Graham is incarcerated, and is shocked to discover that Graham has become a hardened convict and is on the verge of a breakdown.
After Brady gives Graham a job as his chauffeur, he and Brady's daughter Mary (Constance Cummings) fall in love, but Graham, who's about to be paroled, is put in solitary confinement when he won't rat on his cellmate Galloway (Boris Karloff) for the murder of a squealer. After enduring a week of
torture in solitary by the brutal head guard Gleason (DeWitt Jennings), another prisoner slips Graham a knife to either kill Gleason or himself. When Galloway learns about this, he gets himself thrown into solitary and kills Gleason himself, against whom he's had a long-standing grudge, then
admits to killing the squealer and is gunned down by the guards. Brady gets Graham released and he's reunited with Mary.
Lean and mean, THE CRIMINAL CODE is unavoidably somewhat dated, but crackles with electricity and tension for the most part. It also demonstrates that by 1930 (when the film was made) Hawks had already mastered the use of sound in only his second talkie, building up mood and atmosphere by
utilizing the reverberating sounds of the marching inmates's stomping feet, the clang of cell doors slamming shut, and even the use of "offstage" dialogue, something rarely done in films of its era. Most of all, however, is the extensive use of the word "Yeah," which Brady endlessly employs in
every sentence and which is used in the prison to such a ridiculous degree that it becomes a kind of running gag mantra and a parody of tough-guy dialogue, first when the inmates "greet" Brady by derisively yammering the word over and over again, and culminating in the intense scene where the
"Yeahs" reach a deafening roar during a fantastic montage of faces and clenched teeth as Galloway tracks down the squealer and kills him. The depiction of the convicts and the prison milieu has real authenticity, partly due, no doubt, to Hawks's use of numerous ex-cons not only as extras, but also
to help him devise a new ending for the play on which the story was based, which he felt had a bad last act.
Also helping to keep the film fresh is Hawks's customary downplaying of the more melodramatic and sentimental moments (as in the scene where it's revealed that Graham's mother has died), and his oblique treatment of violence during the early segments of the story in order to heighten its effect at
the climax. The opening murder is never seen, and Galloway stabs the squealer to death behind a closed door, but the final siege in the prison "dungeon" involving Galloway, Gleason, Brady and Graham is graphically depicted and still packs a wallop. Apart from the always stilted Phillips Holmes and
the inexperienced Constance Cummings (in her film debut), the film is extremely well acted, highlighted by the stogie-chewing Huston in a typical hard-as-nails, yet sympathetic, performance (Hawks once called him the best actor he ever worked with). In the role he had previously performed on
stage, Boris Karloff practically steals the film as the chilling Galloway, with his skull-like visage, crew cut, and bulging eyes. Karloff got great reviews and made such a strong impression that his performance led directly to his getting his breakthrough role in FRANKENSTEIN (1931) later that
year. Karloff reportedly was so grateful to Hawks that he begged to be in every movie the director made (Hawks put him in his next film, SCARFACE), and he also incorporated a clip of THE CRIMINAL CODE into one of his last films, Peter Bogdanovich's TARGETS (1967). THE CRIMINAL CODE proved to be
such a critical and commercial hit that Columbia remade it twice, first as a 1938 B movie called PENITENTIARY, and as the enjoyable 1950 Glenn Ford vehicle CONVICTED, but neither of them comes close to the original, which remains one of the best of all "Big House" movies. (Violence.)
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- Review: Howard Hawks's THE CRIMINAL CODE is an archetypal early-talkie prison movie with a classic performance by Walter Huston as a tough warden whose favorite word--and seemingly that of every other character in the film--is "Yeah." After accidentally killing th… (more)