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The Criminal Code

Screening on Film
Directed by Howard Hawks.
With Walter Huston, Phillips Holmes, Constance Cummings.
US, 1931, 35mm, black & white, 97 min.
Print source: Swank

Hawks’ only foray into the prison film, The Criminal Code was part of a cycle of hard-hitting, reform-minded pictures about American crime and punishment made during the early years of sound. The great Walter Huston stars as a rigidly principled prosecuting attorney given the job of warden at a penitentiary populated by criminals he sent away, including a sensitive young man, played by Phillips Holmes, given a hard sentence of ten years for murder in self-defense. The presence of the attorney’s comely daughter adds another dimension to the drama and to Holmes’ relationship with the warden. Most impressive in the cast, however, is journeyman stage and screen actor Boris Karloff (who had already appeared in bit parts in eighty films) in his breakout role as a hardened criminal, a role he had played in the original Broadway production. An innovative talkie, The Criminal Code allowed Hawks to experiment right away with the kind of rapid and overlapping dialogue that would become an important signature of his cinema.

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