Archive for The Criminal Code

Heavy Sentences

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , on July 16, 2014 by dcairns

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Fiona just read Boris Karloff: More Than A Monster, The Authorized Biography by Stephen Jacobs and pronounced it good. “You really feel like you’re being taken day by day through his entire life,” she said. So I was charged with inserting some Karloffiana in the Panasonic. It had been probably ten years since we’d watched THE CRIMINAL CODE, which has dual interest as its sampled in TARGETS…

Boris rocks in this one. If it had been made at Warners it would have been crusading — but it’s a Columbia picture from Howard Hawks and so the tone is breezily cynical but disinterested in political analysis — DA Walter Huston jails juvenile Adonis Phillips Holmes and then becomes prison warden at the jug he’s banged up in, where he tortures him in solitary — and yet Huston is positioned as the film’s hero. In fact, if we disregard the appeals to sentiment and use of physiognomy-as-character, Huston can be seen as the bad guy (but with a mildly vicious guard inserted to soak up the audience’s hostility) while Karloff is the hero’s best pal who saves the day. The remaining weirdness is the inert hero, whose one self-determined act, refusing to snitch, is presented in passive terms. He’s a ping-pong ball batted about between Boris and Walter.

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The script forges a fascinating connection between two meanings of the title — the criminal code Huston lives by is the law of the land, which “Someone’s gotta pay!” for murder. The criminal code Holmes and Karloff must obey is the law that says No Snitching — and if somebody does snitch, then, well, “Someone’s gotta pay!”

In this fashion, the writers throw up felicities and clunkers in equal measure — Huston’s rat-a-tat delivery at times overemphasises the fact that much of his speechifying consists of a single, on-the-nose pronouncement of his position, followed by twenty or so paraphrases of the same statement. One gets the impression that his character is trying to persuade himself of something — maybe that he deserves the role of hero in this picture. When in doubt, he snarls “Yeah?” at anyone who’ll listen. A bit like Eddie G. Robinson’s “See?”

Karloff has to deliver American vernacular dialogue in a middle-class English accent, but mostly gets away with it. Though his face and sinister haircut suggest pure villainy — and he does kill a couple of people, even stalking one around a room in an exact preview of FRANKENSTEIN  — his character is actually pretty complicated. While Huston, in order to “save” Holmes, tortures him, Karloff refuses to let the young man take the rap for him. His malevolent activities are strictly for revenge, and you can understand his rage at the screw who grassed him up for taking a single drink while on parole.

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In the end, Karloff and Huston are both extremists, devoted to their own particular criminal codes at the expense of humanity. Holmes and romantic interest Constance Cummings are simple humanists, who don’t understand much about codes and things but know what decency is. Young Holmes, whose every appearance caused Fiona to swoon away (“And I don’t normally care for conventionally handsome men”), does eventually put forth a more sophisticated interpretation of the code — “It’s right for them.”

Features some great yegg types and as fine a display of yammering as you’re likely to encounter.

“You don’t get yammering like that any more,” said Fiona.

“No. It’s gone the way of the rumble seat.”

UK purchasers:

Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster
THE CRIMINAL CODE (Walter Huston, Boris Karloff) Region 2

US purchasers:

Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster

Karloff: Criminal Kind DVD

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Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2009 by dcairns

Nearly missed this! A quick post to squeeze in under the wire.

I’d elected to watch and write about BEHIND THE CURTAIN, a 1929 mystery story which casts Boris Karloff as an Indian manservant. A few things commended the movie to me. Firstly, I’d enjoyed Tod Browning’s 1929 thriller THE 13TH CHAIR, and was eager to sample more of the creaky, crackly delights of the early talking era. Secondly, I’m fascinated by pre-FRANKENSTEIN Karloff, the best example of which is probably his role in Howard Hawks’ THE CRIMINAL CODE, where he slowly stalks an opponent with all the zombified lumber and menace of the Famous Monster. Thirdly, BEHIND THE CURTAIN is the first ever Charlie Chan movie — sort of.

“…or my name’s not Boris Karloff.” That catchphrase, from the intros of Boris Karloff’s Thriller, the 1960-2 TV show Boris presented, is an amusing one, since Karloff was actually named William Henry Pratt. And in a similar way, his casting as an Indian character in BTC is amusing, since his father was Anglo-Indian, a fact that seems to have been kept fairly secret during Boris’s career. So here’s an Anglo-Indian actor with a Russian name pretending to be a white man pretending to be an Indian.

Boy oh boy this movie moves slowly! Which allows us plenty of time to assess the stupidity of the plotting. London. A private detective is murdered. Said flatfoot was gathering information on two chaps, Warner Baxter and Philip Strange, both of whom were suitors of the same girl, Lois Moran. The only clue is a pair of Chinese slippers jammed onto the corpse’s feet by the killer.

It’s Poole, from the Mamoulian JEKYLL & HYDE!

At first, our suspicions are evenly divided. True, Warner Baxter is a known movie star, but who knows what he was capable of in 1929? Whereas Strange is just strange. But soon it becomes clear that Strange is the killer, and he’s married the poor girl. Relocating to India, he blatantly carries on an affair with the maid, Nuna (Mercedes de Valasco, a common Indian name I’m sure), and becomes enraged when his wife learns his secret.

Meanwhile, Sir Frederick Bruce (Gilbert Emory) of Scotland Yard has learned that the slippers belonged to Baxter (he doesn’t LOOK like a man who’d wear Chinese slippers, but there it is). This practically proves Baxter’s innocence, since why would he deliberately leave his own property behind at the crime scene? Yet it takes the plodding Sir Fred another YEAR to solve the case.

His informant on the slipper situation is Charlie Chan, world’s second greatest detective (after Sir Frederick, we are told — God help us all). But Chan doesn’t appear until the narrative has trudged its way through Persia, where Karloff turns up as Baxter’s faithful stooge, and from there to San Francisco.

Acting. There’s a lot of it, of course, and all in that ponderously enunciated 1929 style, where the microphone gives the direction. They could practically attach strings from the actors to the boom and let it yank them about. Director Irving Cummings is well served by photography and design, and in a moment of exuberance attempts a tracking shot, but soon has trouble with moving shadows at the edge of frame and reverts to stasis. So what life the film has must come from the cast. So we’re in trouble.

“I hope you like your martinis… very dry.”

Lois Moran gradually unstiffens about 20%, so she can show some emotion when hysteria is called for. Baxter declaims, and tries to sound less American than he is, with reasonable success, but he’s still robotic. Emory (or Emery — credits differ) is hilariously stultified. Karloff excels here, since his character is meant to be rather sepulchral, intoning things like, “The desert gives… and the desert takes away.” He’s the only player who can actually situate a dramatic pause  somewhere in a sentence that makes sense. But his effectiveness is somewhat reduced by the fact that everyone else in the cast is acting as if under deep hypnosis. The qualities that should make Karloff’s Indian stand out cause him to blend in. Still, he has a sinister way with a soda syphon.

The film’s crowning glory is the eventual appearance of Charlie Chan, played by the mysterious EL Park, in his only film. Park is the only oriental actor to have played Chan (NOTE: see comments for correction), although I’m guessing from his name he’s Korean rather than Chinese. He’s wonderful! Fluent and convincing when he babbles away in his native tongue, he becomes hilariously maladroit in English. His pauses are both random and voluminous. “Honorable. Excuses… Sir. Frederick.” he intones.

When Sir Fred is speaking, Park’s eyes dart around the set in panic, taking in the crew, the camera, painting a retinal portrait, for our benefit, of the whole studio. Park succeeds, where Karloff could not, in blowing a hole in the film’s consistency of style, which is one of suffocating lack of imagination. Through his sheer amateurishness, this glorified walk-on ennobles and illuminates his surroundings, offering us our sole glimpse of recognizable humanity.

I love this man! Can somebody tell me more? Park’s history — even as to whether he was in fact an actor at all — is unknown, but it seems like I might have some luck where others have failed: I’ve already made contact with Charlie Chan’s grandson.