The Criminal Code (1931, USA)

The Criminal Code - an unravelling Bob Graham (Phillips Holmes) is assisted by Jim Fales (Otto Hoffman)

Martin Flavin’s 1929 stage play of the same name was made into a film four times, it seems: this one – and possibly an alternative Spanish version, El código penal – in 1931, Penitentiary (1938), and Convicted (1950). Not even The Longest Yard (1974) has had as many remakes, and one of those at least featured a change of football codes; all the Criminal Code productions are virtually scene-by-scene replications.

In this, the original (and arguably the best) movie, it is Bob Graham (Phillips Holmes), a 20-year-old new to the town, who remonstrates with a man who is pestering his dance partner and then, thinking that the other man is reaching for a weapon, hits him over the head with a water bottle. The man dies and Graham is charged with his murder by District Attorney Mark Brady (Walter Huston). Privately Brady claims that he would be confident of getting Graham off on self-defence were he representing him; publicly he pursues him vigorously at trial, and with ineffectual counsel young Graham cops 10 years in the slammer.

A few years down the track and Brady, his political ambitions temporarily thwarted, finds himself as the Warden of the same slammer, with more than 2,500 prisoners to look after. The congregated inmates, many of whom have been sent down by him personally when he was DA, express their displeasure at his appointment, yammering and yowling in the yard. Brady strides out amongst them, puffing on a cigar; the prisoners get the message – he’s unafraid, and he can afford cigars. They stop yammering.

Meanwhile, six years into his stretch and after six years working in the jute mill, Graham starts to get the wobbles. His mother has died and he is very much alone and at breaking point. The prison doctor suggests to the new Warden that this is a prisoner worth saving. Brady remembers him from his trial, and gives him a job as the driver for his daughter, Mary (Constance Cummings). Graham recovers from his malaise, but is soon besotted with Mary.

There are other complications, too. One of his cellmates, Jim Fales (Otto Hoffman), tries to escape but is ratted on by another prisoner, Runce. Fales is shot dead and in turn the whole prison wants the stoolie dead. Brady is forced to give Runce a safe haven as a filing clerk in his office. He doesn’t last long, however, murdered by Graham’s other cellmate, Ned Galloway (a fearsome Boris Karloff), a trusty like Graham, who has access to the Warden’s office by virtue of his job as houseboy to the Warden’s elderly housekeeper. How Galloway – a hardened career criminal bearing a significant grudge against the system – was ever placed in such a trusted role is one of the film’s great mysteries. And weaknesses.

Brady returns to his office to find Graham there and Runce dead in the next room. Brady knows that Graham didn’t kill him, but wants to know who did. Graham reflects back on the injustice of his conviction and who his friends have been, and sticks by the criminal code – he refuses to squeal, even though he is within days of being released on parole. Huston’s performance in attempting to drag the killer’s name out of Graham is the film’s dramatic highlight; Holmes’s anguish as he weighs up his options is the only time in the film that he comes across as being made of something other than wood.

Graham is naturally enough thrown in the dungeon with only bread and water to encourage him to reconsider his position. There he is further bullied by the Captain of the Yard, Gleason (DeWitt Jennings), but remains staunch, even in his weakened state. Galloway ultimately decides that the kid shouldn’t take the rap for him – and besides, he has a score to settle with Gleason, who unnecessarily reported him for having a beer while he was on parole – that parole violation costing him another 12 years in jail. Galloway engineers his transfer to the dungeon, overpowers a guard, grabs his firearm and then, after surrendering the revolver grabs Gleason and stabs him. He is shot dead – but not before confessing to Runce’s murder as well.

Graham is then free to be paroled, and free to romance Mary, who has happily confessed her love for him to her father. The Warden is fortunately a liberal thinker, and doesn’t despair of his only daughter setting up her life with a convicted killer.

There are a number of scenes that hold their own in any era: Brady’s walk through the yammering masses, and his impassioned attempt to break down Graham, pulling out all stops to have him divulge the name of the killer. But my favourite is a poignant moment when Graham is advised, in his cell, by telegram, that his mother has died – “Your move, kid,” is all that his cellmate can offer, hovering over the checkers board. It says much about the inmates’ attitude to prison life; they are not unsympathetic (and indeed spring to Graham’s defence when a guard rebukes him for an emotional outburst), but for the seasoned Fales and Galloway, life is full of tough breaks and you just have to get on with it.

It is a compelling piece of drama which allows you to understand a little of why it was copied and copied again. And to mourn the apparent passing of yammering and yowling.

the-criminal-code-02 the-criminal-code-11 The Criminal Code #3 - Constance Cummings as Mary Brady and Phillips Holmes as Bob Graham

Posted on October 30th, 2012 at 10:10 am. Updated on April 9th, 2013 at 10:11 pm.

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