Criminals and Their Code

100As I peck this out, it’s July 1. In two days, I’ll clock in for the most grueling day on my Day Job, covering the City’s July 3 Independence Day parade. Thankfully, this has gotten a little easier over the years, as the move to a location at the Stafford Centre provides better access to a place to get out of the Texas heat (and worse, the murderous humidity hereabouts) than was formerly the case. We used to set up in a field opposite the school complex, where there was a tree or two you could rest under. That field is now a parking lot.

So what I’m saying is I should bang something out before I die of heatstroke on Friday.

Poster - Monsieur Verdoux_01Continuing on with Chaplin’s later career, I watched Monsieur Verdoux last week, and I was more struck by the general oddness of tone than the controversial subject matter. This is, of course, the movie based on the career of Henri Landru, a notorious “Bluebeard” guillotined for the murder of ten women and a boy in 1922. Chaplin, as the title character, is a bank clerk who loses his job during a recession, and turns to the much more lucrative trade of wooing elderly women, gaining control of their assets, and then killing them. Oh yes, this is subtitled “A Comedy of Murders”.

Verdoux rationalizes that this is all business, so he is not necessarily a murderer. He has a wife, dating back to his bank clerk days; she is confined to a wheelchair, and some of his ill-gotten loot goes toward caring for her and his son. The rest is invested in the stock market, and as this is set in France in the early 30s, you know that is not going to turn out well at all. Verdoux is an ardent vegetarian, and lectures his son about not being cruel to animals – in fact, like a Buddhist monk, at one point Verdoux gently picks up a caterpillar from a garden path so it won’t be stepped on. You reflect upon the fact that a scene in the later French horror movie, Eyes Without A Face, had a scene excised in America showing its main villain caring for a child in his clinic with great care and empathy; we like our villains in starkest black and white, but this is only one of the reasons Verdoux was a failure in its US release in 1947.

2013-10-20The movie’s episodic nature works for it; its length ultimately works against it. Martha Raye has an extended role as a brassy lottery winner whose amazing luck means that she is the one victim Verdoux never quite manages to kill (as the French critic Andre Bezin points out, this is the one murder we want to succeed). Marilyn Nash similarly has a recurring role as a vagrant girl Verdoux picks up to test a new poison upon, then changes his mind after finding out she, too, once had an invalid spouse. Nash turns up one last time, her fortunes reversed since she has taken up with a munitions manufacturer who is making out like a bandit in Europe’s ramping up to WWII. “That’s the business I should have gone into,” moans a sad, diminished Verdoux.

Therein lies another reason the movie failed for an America coming off the Other Great War: in his trial, Verdoux does not necessarily defend himself, but he points out that his sins pale in comparison to the wholesale slaughter taking place every day in the political arena. “Numbers sanctify,” he tells a reporter seeking a moral to his story.

Intro_largeThe ultimate reason for Verdoux‘ box office failure on these shores: Chaplin was not playing the tramp. He had theoretically left the character behind in The Great Dictator, but the Jewish Barber is, essentially the Tramp with an actual profession. A desperate ad campaign with the tagline “Chaplin Changes! Can YOU?” didn’t turn the tide. It was a tide that had been flowing against Chaplin, seemingly orchestrated by J. Edgar Hoover, who was suspicious of Chaplin’s political views. Trials accusing Chaplin of violating the Mann Act (dismissed after two weeks and months of breathless media coverage) and a paternity suit in 1945 had tarnished his image. Honestly, as announcement to the world that there would be no more Little Tramp movies, Monsieur Verdoux is sterling. As a middle finger to that world, it’s even better.

This trailer doesn’t help the cause much, starting with a silhouette of the Tramp – but watch how Verdoux counts money. It’s inhuman, and I wonder how long it took Chaplin to master it – it’s a trick that’s pulled (with comic exactitude) three times during the movie. Also note the interplay between Raye and Chaplin, two old vaudeville pros who know exactly how to play off each other.

c7cdd1c5_CriminalCode-1931-Columbia-oneBEver since I’d re-watched Targets, I’d had a hankering to see the other movie quoted in it besides The Terror: The Criminal Code. It’s a lovely scene in Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff)’s hotel room, when the drunken director (Peter Bogdanovich) spots The Criminal Code playing on the TV. “That’s The Criminal Code!” says Bogdanovich. “I know,” replies Karloff. “Howard Hawks directed this!” “I know.

It’s a climactic scene playing out on the TV: the typically gaunt, menacing, knife-wielding Karloff stalking a cowering prison inmate. Good enough to file the title away for later seeking.

Not so easy, these days. Not for a 1931 penitentiary flick, in black and white and actually starring a bunch of people the average joe on the street would identify as “Who?” (The average joe on the street is a moron) Semi-luckily for me, Turner Classic Movies put out a box set of three movies Karloff made on the cusp of his sudden fame for Frankenstein. Luckily because I wanted to see The Criminal Code. Semi because I also had to buy The Guilty Generation and Behind the Mask. Maybe I’ll watch those some day.

Anyway, Criminal Code paints a pretty wide canvas. A young kid (Philips Holmes) kills a man in an incident District Attorney Mark Brady (Walter Huston) points out could easily be dismissed on extenuating circumstances, but he is bound by the Criminal Code (thumps law book) to try the kid for manslaughter. The kid’s lawyer, used to financial cases, is overwhelmed and the kid gets put away for ten years.

huston-in-yardAfter six years of working in the jute mill, the kid is about to break, although his two cellmates (one of whom is Karloff, playing a hardcase named Galloway) are oldtimers trying to help him cope. Brady, having lost an election for Governor, becomes warden of the prison as a consolation prize, and actually sets out to improve things somewhat. The Kid is rescued from the jute mill and made a trustee – Brady’s chauffeur, no less, which puts him in a prime position to fall in love with Brady’s daughter (Constance Cummings) and vice versa. The Kid’s third cellmate is killed in an escape attempt, and the blame for that death falls on the snitch Runch (Clark Marshall), whom Galloway knifes during a riot – the scene excerpted in Targets. The Kid sees Galloway leave the scene, then refuses to tell Brady anything, adhering to the Criminal Code of the inmates (ha! See what they did there?), even though his parole is on Brady’s desk, ready to be signed.

the-criminal-codeIt’s melodrama, but pretty decent melodrama. Hawks keeps thing moving even though the plot threatens to turn back and start eating itself a couple of times. This is Karloff’s first really significant film role, and he got it mainly because it’s based on a play that was having a successful run in Los Angeles when MGM had a surprise hit with The Big House. Columbia, considered a second-rate studio at best, scrambled for something to ride on its coattails, and here was a script already written (Hawks had it re-written at least four times, though). Karloff had played Galloway in that production, and was carried over to the movie. Karloff said in later years if a more prestigious studio had produced the movie, the role would have gone to an actor with a bigger name. It’s a supporting role, but vital.

Should you also seek out Criminal Code? If you’re a Karloff or Hawks completist, sure. Otherwise, you’ll sleep just fine tonight without having watched it. Here’s that scene used in Targets, if that helps you sleep better:

 

2 Comments

  1. Dear lord, Karloff is terrifying in that opening bit. Not just his physical presence, but his eerie calm and calculated movements…the same attributes that he would use to their full and ghastly effectiveness in The Mummy.

    I also like that they didn’t show the actual murder–the door closing is much more sinister.

    • It is a very powerful scene. The detail that shows Karloff as a craftsman is the way he purposely turns the knife in the opening part of the scene, so that the blade catches the light. We can’t see his face, but we know his intent.


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