Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Criminal Code

[This is a contribution to the Early Hawks Blog-a-thon hosted right here at Only The Cinema. It will run from January 12 to January 23, 2009.]

Howard Hawks' second sound film was The Criminal Code, a hard-edged prison drama about the promising young Bob Graham (Phillips Holmes), who finds his life detours onto a very different path after a nightclub fight leaves another man dead. Graham comes before the tough, monosyllabic D.A. Mark Brady (Walter Huston), who is not nearly as sympathetic as he is practical: there's an election coming up, and even if he knows that the death was an accident and could be classified as self-defense, he feels the pressure to go for a murder charge instead. Graham winds up with ten years in jail, the passage of time slowly eating away at him until Brady, with his political career not panning out as planned, is reassigned as the prison's new warden. It's a taut psychological drama, focused not so much on concrete action as on the philosophical and emotional undercurrents involved in this story. Brady's idea of justice as a D.A. is "an eye for an eye," which he insists is the foundation of the legal system. "Somebody's gotta pay" when a crime is committed, he says, an expression that implies it doesn't really matter who pays. So the film is actually about the redemption of both its leads: Graham, crushed by his years in prison, must learn to be a honest, decent man again, while Brady, faced with the consequences of his sometimes laissez faire judicial philosophy, must rethink his concepts of justice and fairness.

It's a relatively simple narrative then, and Hawks is saddled with a screenplay that often seems to be padding its length in order to obscure this basic simplicity. Once the action moves to the prison, it pretty much stays there, and there are often long, drawn-out dialogue scenes in which nothing much happens, simply to pass some time. The static setting and uneventful plotting especially become tiresome in any of the scenes between Graham and Brady's daughter Mary (Constance Cummings), who predictably falls in love with the young convict who's trying to reform. It doesn't help that Graham, as sketched by the uneven Holmes, isn't much of a character. Holmes acquires some much-needed grit in the scenes where Graham, transformed by his years in prison, becomes hard and short-tempered, or else lapses into a zombie-like walking sleep. But his idea of playing a normal, decent guy is to drain every trace of bite or personality out of this poor shell, leaving a gaping hole of charisma and actorly presence in the screen.

To a large extent, this hole is filled by Walter Huston. Huston is a magnetic presence, an overpowering actor who dominates any scene he's in; he frequently seems to be acting in another, better movie from the rest of the cast. No matter what the tortured, melodramatic dialogue might be, Huston manages to make it sound magnificent, brilliant, emotionally charged: listening to him is inspiring and exciting even if the actual words he's saying would be dead on the page, as they sometimes are here. He even manages to invest the depths of his character into Brady's habitual repetition of the monosyllabic "yeah," an all-purpose bit of verbiage that he spits out as punctuation, a challenge, a sign of resignation, a question, an indication of thought, and only occasionally as an actual affirmation. The actor uses his character's general taciturnity to his advantage: as shaped by Huston, Brady comes across as a man with a sharp intellect who thinks before he speaks, so his few explosions into impassioned speechifying are endowed with a greater profundity than they would have if this preachy verbalizing was his norm.

But if Huston dominates the film, chewing through its uneven script like the cigar he frequently chomps, Hawks must also be credited with infusing life into the corners of the film, sketching details and nuances around the edges of Huston's performance. Hawks most obviously comes alive in the film's opening scene, which follows a couple of cops who can't stop arguing about a game of cards even long enough to go investigate a murder. It's a hilarious bit of business, achieved with the frenetic, overlapping soundtrack that would later be known as one of Hawks' most characteristic touches. The cops' running argument is carried through from a scene by the telephone, where they get the call to head out to the nightclub, to a sped-up sequence where the car arrives at the club, to the actual investigation itself, even reappearing on the fringes of several subsequent scenes as Graham is brought before the D.A. for the first time. It's so great — and so out of tune with the rest of this rather dour film — that one inevitably wonders if Hawks spontaneously added the whole bit himself, just to liven things up.

Hawks' touch is also felt in the scene where Brady, while being shaved by one of the prison barbers, engages the man in idle conversation, during the course of which he learns that he was the one who sent this barber to prison, and that the crime was slitting a man's throat. As the barber runs his razor along Huston's exposed neck for the last time, Hawks focuses on Huston's upturned head, one of his eyes visible from this angle, staring off to the side with restrained concern. The film even boasts the prison version of the typical Hawksian mourning sequence, when Graham learns by telegram that his mother has just died. His cellmates pass the telegram around, glancing at it disinterestedly, then attempt to defuse their friend's inevitable breakdown by prodding him into continuing the game of checkers that had been interrupted by the news. This pointed nonchalance in the face of death, the attempt to ignore it with frivolous fun and surface celebration, is a constant in Hawks' films, perhaps most poignantly captured in the cheerful drunken wake for a dead aviator in Only Angels Have Wings.

These typically Hawksian moments abound, particularly in the director's handling of the film's two best acting assets. Huston of course is always great — especially when he stoically faces down a whole yard full of restless prisoners — but Boris Karloff threatens to steal the whole film away from everyone in his relatively few brief scenes. This was Karloff's first major picture, and his role as the hulking murderer Galloway led directly to his famous part in Frankenstein. It's easy to see why: he brings a sinister intensity to Galloway, with his tightly cropped bowl haircut, outsized body, and an overhanging brow that casts heavy shadows over his glinting, shard-like eyes. In his early scenes as Graham's cellmate, he stays mostly in the background, an unobtrusive minor character until Hawks abruptly highlights Karloff's frightening visage in a blurry, massive closeup as Galloway fantasizes about finally getting his hands on a "squealer." But Galloway is also, intriguingly, somewhat sympathetic and humanized; his devolution into an obsessed killer largely developed, it's implied, because of the actions of the manipulative chief guard (DeWitt Jennings).

Later, Hawks brilliantly stages a murder scene by focusing on Galloway's huge, unmoving back, his posture erect and his form towering over his intended victim, who cowers before him. The scene remains motionless for a few long, breathless moments, so that the focus of attention becomes the thin sliver of light that plays along the well-polished blade that abruptly appears in Galloway's outstretched hand. Moments like this obviously stand out from the sodden mush that often surrounds them in this film. It's a film where the parts are greater than the whole, perhaps because the vibrant, interesting scenes are often separated from each other by intermittent fallow patches. Working with substandard material and only two actors who possess sufficient fire and energy for a Hawks film, the director nevertheless makes The Criminal Code a worthwhile and often even fascinating drama.


Joshua said...

Ha, I was going to mention in my post the excellent scene in the barber's chair but I couldn't work it in and I was already pressing for space. Interesting take.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks Josh. There were so many great scenes in this that it was tempting to try and squeeze them all in. It's a bit uneven as a whole, but there are individual moments that are just stunning. My impression of these early Hawks films in general, thus far, is of a great director worming his way into often substandard or confused material, packing the maximum impact into stories that would've been totally average in other hands. said...

I enjoyed this post on a little-reviewed early talkie by Hawks, and am in agreement with your astute assessment. This film possesses pockets of brilliance, but is poorly paced at times and padded. Huston is doing the best he can!