The Criminal Code (1931): Howard Hawks in The Big House

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Although this is still a very early talkie, you can already see Howard Hawks developing a more intricate sense of dialogue which he would be known for in his pictures — most notably His Girl Friday. In the opening scene at the police station, we have dialogue piled on top of each other between pinochle and the lastest crime being called in over the telephone.

It’s a wonderful melding of both character and exposition being delivered fluidly in a manner that supplies us so much in such a short amount of time. Soon the two quarreling cops are on the scene at a nightclub where a fellow was knocked off.

The by-the-book incumbent district attorney, Mr. Brady (Walter Huston), sees an open and shut case, although it’s a rotten break involving a kid and a girl, and another man is dead. He concedes this and yet the law is his Bible — an eye for an eye, somebody’s gotta pay mentality — going back as far as the precepts of Hammurabi in ancient times. He’s not willing to budge an inch.

He unceremoniously consigns a young man (Philips Holmes) to 10 years in prison as penance for his wrongdoings. Even it if was only one false step, the law says he has to pay for his deeds. There is no other recourse. Time passes and prison life has gotten to him, left him stir-crazy and ragged. He’s no longer the fresh-faced kid he once was and news of his dear mother’s passing is yet another blow.

His bunkmates try and watch out for him and settle his nerves, but they’re not totally sympathetic. How can they be? Some of the men put in there by Brady feel duped. There’s this pervasive sense of restlessness and unease.

This prevailing mood only grows worse when Brady takes on the role of the new warden in the prison. The incarcerated mob ignites with yammering in the jail yard because the new man has come to town, and he was instrumental in putting so many of them away.

Brutal law and order are maintained by Gleason, the paunchy head prison guard, who’s not above threats and psychological intimation. There’s one in every big house, and he has a standing appointment with Boris Karloff’s Galloway.

In fact, Galloway is loaded with the kind of menace Karloff thrived on throughout his career, and he becomes a stellar conduit throughout the movie even as Gleason represents all that’s wrong with authoritarian power trips. They have a mental duel going on that takes a while to come to fruition.

One bright light is Constance Cummings, a genial countenance of stylish propriety and beauty. Her very presence comes to represent so much in the movie, and it’s true she represents both a beacon and a sliver of hope for Robert. If nothing else, he wants to be in her presence — just to see her and talk with her — because she makes him feel human again.

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The narrative wouldn’t be complete without a botched escape attempt, but what’s more intriguing are the consequences. Because the stool pigeon, a sniveling squealer named Runch gains the ire of the entire compound and there are rumblings of unrest. Retribution is brewing in some form.

Robert does his best to stay out of it, but he’s also not prepared to help the canary. In the resulting drama, he’s implicated while maintaining his innocence. It also puts him wholly at odds with the warden who looks to get him parole. Still, he’s beholden to the law in all things. It’s guided his entire life, his entire career. Leniency is not in his vocabulary.

Whereas Robert has become beholden to the other side and the honor among thieves, if we can call it that. You don’t rat and you keep promises because what good is it if you can’t keep your word? It shows his personal integrity. For his reluctance to speak he’s put in “the hole” and subjected to the malevolence of Gleason.

Although there is a standoff and the kind of finale we expect, the crux of the story — all its thematic ideas — come in this earlier portion. Because Mary returns from her time away and what it does is provide perspective. She loves this man, Robert, even though he’s never said it outright. She knows he is the one, and it causes her to confront her father with the truth.

Father and daughter have it out in civil discourse in the first moment where they aren’t pals and actually stand up for their personal prerogatives and what they believe to be right. While it’s not exactly Scarface, Hawks does a stellar job of grounding a tale of crime and punishment once again with a familial relationship. Phillips Holmes isn’t a particularly enthralling actor, but between the likes of Huston, Karloff, and Cummings, there’s a fine array of color. It more than deserves a spot as an unsung Howard Hawks picture.

3.5/5 Stars

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