Combustible Celluloid
With: Walter Huston, Phillips Holmes, Constance Cummings, Boris Karloff, DeWitt Jennings, Mary Doran, Ethel Wales, Clark Marshall, Arthur Hoyt, John St. Polis, Paul Porcasi, Otto Hoffman, John Sheehan
Written by: Fred Niblo Jr., Seton I. Miller, based on a play by Martin Flavin
Directed by: Howard Hawks
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 97
Date: 01/03/1931

The Criminal Code (1931)

4 Stars (out of 4)

An Eye for an Eye

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I was lucky enough to see Howard Hawks's The Criminal Code at the 1998 pre-code film festival at the Roxie Theater. I settled myself down, getting ready to simply check this one off my list of Hawks films to see. Once again, the master surprised me, and by the end of the film, I was on the edge of my seat. A kid (Phillips Holmes) gets himself in jail for defending a girl he's dancing with during a brawl. His cellmates are an old man and Boris Karloff (in his first big role, just before Frankenstein). The old man plans a prison break, but he's ratted on and gets killed. Karloff kills the rat, and the kid is a witness. But the kid won't break, even though he's about to get a parole, and also possibly win the heart of the warden's daughter. The warden is Walter Huston, who sent up most of the guys in the prison, and he's great. Most of his dialogue consists of one word: "yeah?" Karloff blew me away, though. He's such an amazing presence, and quite a hero here. It's too bad he was typecast as a monster after this. The film was an early example of Hawks's fascination with codes among groups of men, especially in a work environment. Overall, it's another masterwork by an artist who made many. It received an Oscar nomination for its screenplay.

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