Monday, May 07, 2007


Howard Hawks prison melodrama which provides a nice showcase for Walter Huston as the star and also for Boris Karloff in a juicy supporting role. Meek and mild Phillips Holmes gets a bit drunk and is arrested for attacking a man he claimed was trying to assault his girlfriend. The man dies and Holmes is charged with manslaughter. Huston, the district attorney, notes that a good lawyer could get Holmes off, but he goes after the kid since what he calls the "criminal code" calls for "an eye for an eye." Holmes gets 10 years and the sympathy of his cellmates, one of whom is Karloff, embittered because when he was out on parole, he was caught by a cop drinking a beer at a speakeasy and tossed back in the slammer. Years pass and Huston is appointed warden of the prison. On his first day, he shows the men who's in charge when he quells a "yammering" protest in which the men congregate in the prison yard and loudly chatter nonsense syllables. Holmes learns that his mother has died and he has a breakdown. Huston, remembering his case, makes him his personal chauffeur and for a while, Holmes improves, partly because he gets a crush on Huston's daughter (Constance Cummings), and the warden begins working on a parole for the boy. When prisoner Clark Marshall squeals on some guys planning a breakout, Huston knows that he'll be a marked man and feels responsible for his life, so he puts Marshall in a room off of his own office, but Karloff, in a well-staged and suspenseful scene, manages to sneak in and kill Marshall. Holmes sees the crime but won't rat out Karloff, instead winding up facing the murder charge himself. Huston realizes that Holmes didn't do it but is following another criminal code: don’t snitch. The final sequence is tense and satisfying. Huston is solid and commanding, as usual, and Karloff is equally good at being a slimy bad guy with whom you also sympathize. (This came out in Jamuary of 1931, and between this and his breakout role as the monster in FRANKENSTEIN in November, he appeared in twelve other movies!) It's based on a play and some scenes are a bit talky, but overall this remains a highly watchable film, mostly due to good acting all around. [TCM]

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