The Criminal Code
Howard Hawks (Twentieth Century) made his first film for Columbia Pictures with this pre-Code prison movie. The great Walter Huston (Dragonwyck) stars as a district attorney-turned-prison warden who gets to witness first-hand the effects of his convictions, especially Phillip Holmes (An American Tragedy), imprisoned after killing a man in a drunken brawl. Co-starring Boris Karloff (Frankenstein), The Criminal Code is tough, no-nonsense, quintessential Hawks.
Indicator brings Howard Hawks’ The Criminal Code to Blu-ray, presenting the film on a single-layer disc with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The master was supplied by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
Though this ultimately looks better than I was expecting, the master ends up having a number of pre-existing issues baked into it. Most of these issues come down to the source materials, which are—unsurprisingly—in rough shape. I can’t say what materials were used for the initial scan other than it’s clear this comes from multiple sources—at least based on the jumps in quality throughout—and that the original negative never came into play (I would assume it's gone). The picture always looks soft, even full-on out-of-focus here and there, like during Karloff's big moment where his character explains what landed him back in prison. Grain and contrast can vary heavily throughout, though contrast comes off looking mostly fine, with blacks looking decent enough. Grays can blend well enough, but then the picture can get a bit heavier and darker, losing the details we’ve managed to get thus far. Damage is prevalent, with lots of scratches and marks, though I was expecting it to be a lot heavier than it has turned out, marks just trickling through most of the time. Still, missing frames, larger frame jumps, mild fluctuations and subtle frame shifts are littered throughout.
So, the initial restoration work has been minimal and some problems are inherent to the original shoot (like those out-of-focus moments), but none of that is really too big of a surprise. Sadly, the dated master enhances some issues and causes others. While this high-def encode still looks significantly better than what DVD could ever offer, delivering better compression management and far more detail where the source allows, it looks to have been made with only DVD in mind (this is more than likely the same master used for Sony’s Karloff crime film set). Grain is present but is kind of mushy and noisy, especially when it gets heavier. Shimmering around tighter lines and patterns is also a consistent issue, exasperated further when the frame is slightly jumping. This ends up leading to moiré effects and other digital anomalies.
Sadly, this is all more than likely baked into the master, and I have a feeling Indicator couldn’t do much about it, outside of just encode it as best they can. That effort, at least, pays off in the end. Though the image is problematic, when it’s at its best it does still manage to look decent enough all things considered, and—as I’ve tried to stress—looks far better than a DVD would ever be able to pull off. The film would more than benefit from a new scan and restoration, I’m just not sure how likely that is to ever happen, especially if these are the best materials available.
The audio soundtrack (presented in lossless PCM), is also limited by its age. The soundtrack is a bit muffled with tinny sounding dialogue, though you can still make out what is being said. Range is severely limited, fidelity is non-existent, and background noise is pretty much a constant. It is what it is in the end.
I realize I’m not selling the A/V presentation at all, but where this release absolutely kills it is in the supplement department: Indicator has really gone all out with this edition, packing on some great material, the best easily being an all-new audio commentary by film historian Nora Fiore, and it's a rahter "wild" one, for lack of a more suitable word. Fiore just dives right into things and never lets up, covering the film’s stage origins and the various remakes that would follow Hawks' adaptation, including a Spanish-language version, now lost, made simultaneously with this film. She talks a bit about Hawks’ and Karloff’s careers around this time, and even talks a little about director of photography James Wong Howe at this point, who was having a rough time with the transition from silent filmmaking to sound (he shot most of this film but was replaced). She admires Hawks’ direction and his touches to enhance the material, along with his desire to avoid sentiment where possible. She also brings up the film’s creative use of sound, and even talks about real-life influences behind the story and film. She keeps her focus primarily on the film and topics related to it, only venturing away when appropriate, like when she gets into Columbia’s output at that point in time. It’s a wickedly energetic, well researched, funny, and thoroughly engrossing track, one of the better ones I’ve listened to in recent memory.
Indicator doesn’t stop there with the new material, adding on a couple of other new features. Kim Newman pops up to talk about Boris Karloff for 25-minutes, focusing on his work during the earlier and later points of his career, with a nice focus on both The Criminal Code and his last film, Targets. We also get a new 30-minute visual essay about the various remakes, called Codes and Convictions. The essay (expanding on what Fiore covers in her commentary) offers comparisons between The Criminal Code, Penitentiary, and the Glenn Ford/Broderick Crawford starrer Convicted (the latter of which, coincidentally enough, will be available in Indicator’s upcoming third volume of Columbia noir films). Using split screens, it shows the different approaches to the same subject matter, while also showing how things were updated in the post-prohibition era. Penitentiary looks very low-key, almost lazy (even reusing some of the same footage in The Criminal Code), in comparison to Hawks’ version (making one realize just how much Hawks does elevate the material), but Convicted looks to have that harder edge, going for a grittier feel. I haven't seen that film yet, but I'm looking forward to it in Indicator's upcoming set.
From the archives Indicator next presents around 36-minutes of audio excerpts from a 1997 recording of a Howard Hawks Master Class hosted by director John Carpenter. Carpenter talks about Hawks’ work between genres, whether it be crime films like The Big Sleep or comedy like Twentieth Century, and what made them all still uniquely his films. It sounds as though clips are being played from Hawks’ films after which Carpenter then expands on afterwards, though those clips have been removed here. At one point he does walk through the opening of Rio Bravo to explain how he can convey so much using very little. This is followed by a Q&A, which unsurprisingly, leads to questions about Carpenter’s The Thing and the Hawks film that inspired it. It’s a shame there is no video, but even with just the audio it’s a solid crash course on the filmmaker.
More archival material follows, including a 1939 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of ‘The Criminal Code’ starring Edward G. Robinson and running around 59-minutes; because of the short time it rushes through the first act. We also get a couple of image galleries: one presenting production photos around Hawks’ film, along with lobby cards and posters, and another short gallery presenting production photos around the lost Spanish-language version that Fiore talks about in her commentary.
The limited edition also comes with a 36-page booklet first featuring a lengthy essay on the film written by Philip Kemp, followed by reprinted excerpts from interviews featuring Hawks, one with Joseph McBride, another with Peter Bogdanovich. Following that is a reprint of a 1963 article by Henri Langlois around Hawks’ early films, followed by a small collection of critics’ comments about the film from the time of its release and then through the years. It’s one of Indicator’s typically great booklets and it beautifully closes off an excellent batch of features.
The presentation is definitely open to improvement but the supplementary material alone makes this one worth picking up, mostly thanks to a terrific audio commentary by Nora Fiore.