The Criminal Code (1931)

Crime Doesn’t Pay

The Criminal Code explores the issue of turning a normal person who made a mistake into a criminal through time spent in prison and ends up abiding by the criminal code itself. The same subject matter is also explored in the movie Caged made 19 later; nothing seems to change. Robert Graham (Phillip Homles) is a sheltered pretty boy who got a rotten break (similar to Robert Montgomery in The Big House). However unlike Montgomery in The Big House, Graham is put in a cell with two guys (including Boris Karloff’s Galloway) who look out for him. Although you do have to suspend your disbelief a bit over the movie fast forwarding six years and Graham not being remotely criminalised within that time. Among the film’s examination of the American legal and penal system, Walter Huston explains how it would be possible for someone to get off the hook for a crime such as manslaughter; “A year’s delay, a new trial, the witnesses would fade away, they always do, the whole mess would get cold, the paper’s would have something else to yap about. I’d get him off; he’d never serve a day”. Great thought provoking stuff.

Walter Huston plays the warden of the unnamed prison. He is stern but fair and a real “Yes sir!” type as evident from his first appearance with the manner in which he addresses a female witness (“Never mind that, pull down the shade”). The man is one lightening fast talker who can interrogate like a boss but his greatest of moment on badassery comes from the scene in which he goes into the prison yard to confront protesting, yammering prisoners face to face without any guards. Just look at the way he walks into the yard and lights up a cigar. As he approaches the prisoners the yammering stops and they don’t lay a hand on him. Simply put, this guy is badass. Perhaps unrealistically so but that’s why we have movies.

The Criminal Code was Boris Karloff’s first significant screen role in the part of Galloway. With his dominating, tall, lanky figure he steals the show; his monologue on why’s he’s in the slammer with the shadows across his face is hair raising stuff. Galloway has a vengeance with a guard named Gleason which gives the film some dark comic relief such as the two awkwardly passing each other on the stairs to Karloff’s recurring use of the lines “I don’t like you” and “I got an appointment with you”. Likewise the other memorable cast member, albeit in a very brief role is Andy Devine who is very hard to miss with that highly distinctive voice of his.

The Criminal Code uses the same set created for MGM’s The Big House released the year before. With its more intricate cinematography the film doesn’t capture the sense of claustrophobia seen in The Big House but still captures the mundanity of prison life. As an early talkie there is no music present in The Criminal Code but rather the sound of prisoners marching along with various other sound effects are just as effective as any music score could be.

The Criminal Code is also host to one of the most shocking moments in pre-code cinema (and was even featured in Karloff film Targets from 1968). When Galloway chases a squealer into a room while yammering is going on in the background from the prison yard, Galloway walks into the room with the squealer cornered as he slowly closes the door as the squealer looks on in terror. What happens next is up to the viewer’s imagination.

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