#26 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.
I was with this movie until the end. A hard look at the ironic effect the criminal justice system can have on men caught up in it through happenstance, it suddenly gives our characters an easy way out instead of taking the story to the darker places it probably needed to go. Up until those final minutes, Hawks’ The Criminal Code was a solidly told tale, but it simply cannot follow through on the promise of its first 90 minutes.
Walter Huston plays Mark Brady, the district attorney in an unspecified city, who is tasked with the job of prosecuting Phillips Holmes’ Robert Graham, a young man new to town who had a bit too much (illegal) gin at a nightclub and killed a man pawing his date by hitting him over the head with a water bottle. Brady talks to his assistant about how, if he were the boy’s defense, he could get it so that the boy wouldn’t serve a day I prison, but as district attorney he fights as hard as he can to get as punitive a sentence as possible which ends up being ten years.
Six years go by. Graham has whittled away the years working in one of the jail’s manufacturing plants, and Brady has gone on to run unsuccessfully as governor of the state. Brady takes the job as prison warden at Graham’s prison in a post electoral loss move. He’s there to do his best in the job, to mete out justice where he can. He’s a good public servant, and he’s going to do his best to run the prison as best he can. All of this takes about half an hour to set up, and it’s a quality thirty minutes of character-based storytelling that gets all of our pieces together.
Brady makes an impression on the inmate population by breaking up their unified protest of his presence (having put about a thousand of the inmates there himself, according to one estimate) by simply walking through the population unarmed and unguarded in the yard. His machismo impresses them into silence. Shortly afterwards, Graham collapses from the fumes, heat, and pressure of his job, and the prison doctor recommends a change of work to something easier. Brady, having had some level of sympathy for Graham ever since his district attorney days, allows Graham to enter his household as a servant, attending his car and Brady’s daughter, Mary.
Graham, being a good guy, falls for Mary and Mary falls for him, but the romance is never central or overwrought. It’s balanced just right so that we can see and understand the budding feelings without it entering melodrama. So much of the movie is handled so well, I say.
The plot that ends up developing is around a squealing inmate who accidentally gave away the game on an escape attempt that involved Graham’s cellmate, leading to the cellmate getting shot. Not only did this stool pigeon foul up an escape, he got an inmate killed. He now has a target on his back, and Brady knows it. Brady keeps him in his office for protection, and we get an incredibly great sequence where Graham’s other cellmate, Galloway (played really well by Boris Karloff), who is also a servant in the warden’s quarters, sneaks into Brady’s office in the middle of a prison wide jeer session, and kills the stool pigeon. Scored only with the sound of a thousand men calling out at once over and over again, it’s a tense sequence that would have made Hitchcock proud.
I was ready to love this movie in the end, but then the ending started and I could feel my enthusiasm waning instantly. There are a complex set of pieces to put in place involving Graham in solitary confinement because he won’t give up the killer, Galloway trying to get down to solitary to kill the captain of the guard with whom he has a personal grudge before, he thinks, Graham will do it himself, a knife hidden in Graham’s food, and a pistol. As this was all rolling out, I just knew where it was going to end.
The movie has an almost literary feel (not entirely unsurprising considering it was adapted from a play) where so much gets a double meaning, and that starts with the film’s title. At the beginning, it’s emphasized that Brady calls the Criminal Code of the city his Bible, but by the end the criminal code is the code by which criminals in prison live by, dictating Graham’s silence even though he knows that Galloway killed the stool pigeon. There are repeated lines from the beginning of the movie that get repeated in completely oppositional context in the later parts of the movie. This is really strong stuff that never gets highlighted. You need to pay attention to pick it all up, but it’s there. What the movie is doing is showing the deleterious effects of over-enthusiastic sentencing on men and how the pursuit of justice, even nobly done, can go too far to destroy people. Graham is the center of all this, and he’s caught between loyalties, to the law and to his comrades in prison, and then the movie gives him an out.
Galloway goes down, takes a guard’s gun, hides Graham’s knife in his coat, and, after a quick standoff, surrenders himself to the captain of the guard only to take him prisoner and then admit to the warden that he killed the stool pigeon. Well, there goes Graham’s moral quandary, saved by Galloway’s tangential vengeance. The pieces that go into Galloway getting his vengeance and saving Graham’s hide are exceptionally well made, though. Galloway is introduced early, as well as his antipathy against the captain of the guard. The knife, the solitary confinement, and all of the pieces coming together work exceptionally well, but they undermine the movie’s central point completely, undercutting a serious look at the contemporary prison system that may have no easy answers and giving us an easy dramatic out for the audience to hang onto. I wonder if this is a result of the nascent Hays Codes, which weren’t really enforced vociferously until 1934, but this ending just doesn’t fit.
And that’s unfortunate. The movie that precedes that ending is the work of something perhaps special, definitely solid. The ending kind of ruins it, but only kind of. The great murder scene is still there. The solid character work throughout is still there. The good performances from everyone involved (especially Boris Karloff) remain. It just doesn’t come to the right place in the end.