The Criminal Code released in 1931 beat the Hays Code enforcement by a good three years. Cinema in pre-code America was free to be fully amoral and give a frank assessment of modern culture. Howard Hawks always made you feel like he was getting away with something. He was an especially clever, even mischievous, filmmaker in an era where the ink hadn’t quite dried on the rules of filmmaking. His precode work displayed precious little respect for the very institutions that would be lauded without question in the decades hence. In The Criminal Code, the legal system is given the jaundiced view.
There are at least two Criminal Codes in effect. Law enforcement takes its cue from the Old Testament: its “eye for an eye” and every crime needs a prosecution. The criminals themselves have an unspoken honor amongst them. Their only stated rule is to not rat out each other to the authorities.
Poor Robert Graham finds himself the victim of both worlds. After defending the honor of a floozy leaves another man dead, Graham finds himself before district attorney Mark Brady. In confidence Brady boasts that Graham’s case is unfortunate, understandable, and a competent attorney could tie up the legal system in his favor. Neverless the DA prosecutes the boy and secures a ten year sentence. When that DA comes to be the prison’s warden (after a failed gubernatorial bid) he tries to make amends with Graham and secure a parole. Graham witnesses a murder however and is bound by the criminal’s code not to divulge any information. In an effort to pry it out of him, Brady allows the boy to get sent to solitary confinement.
The criminal’s code is embodied by Galloway, played by Boris Karloff in a role that would lead to him being cast as Frankenstein’s monster. Galloway is imposing, but completely honorable to his own ethics. He willingly stays in prison to keep an “appointment” with the man who ratted him out, the captain of the prison guard.
The Criminal Code gives both worlds equal weight, which is a bleak assessment of the legal system of its day. Every encounter with the law destroys a bit more of Graham. From the prosecution that jails him and kills his mother, to the Warden’s ploy to leave him in solitary confinement. When he finally emerges from the hole, sunken-eyed, filthy, and devoid of expression Graham hardly looks human at all.
Though the ultimate message of the film is that finding yourself at the mercy of law enforcement or criminals will only end poorly.
The Criminal Code falls short of being a classic. Phillips Holmes plays better as a mute than as a boy of unfortunate circumstance plying for the love of the Warden’s daughter. He’s completely outclassed by Karloff and Huston.
Too much of the dialog, especially Huston’s, relies on the word ‘yeah’. Spoke shrilly, as if part of this film was secretly meant to mock Edward G Robinson’s accent.