The Criminal Code (1931):

The "usual baloney" Walter Huston warns against are all the pious Big House templates Howard Hawks tears through sardonically from the beginning, when squabbling over a $0.42 bet motors a duo of police officers in and out of the nightclub crime scene, where they pick up the bewildered young culprit (Phillip Holmes). District attorney Huston chews on cigars and on the earnest ingénues sent his way, proud of his ability in both ends of a trial -- he can send the suspect off to the slammer as easily as he can get him off the hook, such is the mobility, both potentially exhilarating and desolating, of the void where Hawks' characters operate. The jail cell where Holmes is crammed with Boris Karloff and Arthur Hoyt provides a miniature setting for the director's favored group dynamics, and, when the protagonist's growing emotional frenzy after news of his mother's death is channeled into a checkers move, his disdain for hysteria. Most of the inmates were convicted by Huston, so when he turns up as the new warden a wave of rhythmic hissing fills the yard -- Huston muffles it by calmly ambling in and staring them down, then gets a shave from the throat-slasher he once upon a time railroaded, a wry bit for Beckett to ponder. Constance Cummings offers Holmes romance as salvation, but the nucleus around which its compact fierceness pivots is the ambush of a trembling stoolie (Clark Marshall), who watches the abstract vendetta montage from his window till Karloff enters, soundlessly, with a shiv. (Bogdanovich paid the sequence an explicit tribute in Targets, Losey a more oblique one in The Criminal.) The unfortunate tendency is to see it all as a minor early-talkie curio, despite the expressionism flashing through somber penal grays on its way to Scarface, the offhand behavioral riches further developed in His Girl Friday, and, "social messages" be damned, Hawks' supremely tranquil predilection for the inward workings of the soul over the grinding apparatus of the Law. With DeWitt Jennings, Mary Doran, Ethel Wales, Paul Porcasi, and Andy Devine. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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