Saturday, February 9, 2019

Convict’s Code (Crescent Pictures, Monogram, Motion Pictures for Television, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The “feature” Charles and I watched last night was Convict’s Code, a title that seems to be an attempt to rip off the name of Columbia’s dark classic The Criminal Code from 1931, a great prison movie directed by Howard Hawks from a play by Martin Flavin and featuring Boris Karloff in a magnificent performance as a convict who murders one of his fellow prisoners for “squealing.” The Criminal Code as a title is a marvelous pun referring both to the laws under which the prisoners have been convicted — at one point Walter Huston, a former prosecutor who quit to run for governor, lost and got appointed warden as a sort of consolation prize, thumps a pile of lawbooks and thunders in his best “Lincoln” voice, “I go by the criminal code!” — and the code of behavior of the convicts themselves, the criminals’ code by which ratting out another prisoner is a crime punishable by death. Unfortunately, that’s not the movie we’re dealing with here: the 1939 Convict’s Code is by Monogram (second iteration) and may or may not be a remake of a now-lost film from Trem Carr Productions in 1930 called Convict’s Code (the connection is that by 1939 Carr was a producer at Monogram and he might have brought the story with him, though the credits for the 1939 Convict’s Code don’t reference the writers of the 1930 version and credit John W. Krafft with an “original” story and screenplay — when I saw that credit I thought, “There probably deserve to be quotation marks around that word ‘original’,” and I was right). Convict’s Code begins with a newspaper headline reminiscing about the former exploits of college football star “Whizz” Tyler (Robert Kent) and telling us that he’s just about to be paroled after having served three years in prison for driving the getaway car at an armed robbery he says he didn’t commit. He’s released under his real name, Dave Tyler, and given an elaborate set of restrictions — he’s not supposed to move or change jobs without the approval of his parole officer, C. W. Bennett (the dog-faced actor Victor Kilian); he’s not supposed to drink alcohol, be friends with criminals, or own a gun; and he also can’t marry without Bennett’s approval. He’s also obliged to let Bennett inspect his residence any time Bennett likes (the signing away of Fourth Amendment rights is a frequent condition of parole or probation even today) and to sign a card certifying he’s a parolee, ostensibly to know any law enforcement official who tries to arrest him as a fugitive from justice that he was released legitimately and did not escape.

Tyler asserts to everyone in earshot, including the prison warden, that he didn’t actually commit the crime even though six witnesses testified at his trial that they saw him drive the getaway car, and once he’s out he gets a room in a rooming house surprisingly easily (the landlady is played by the great Maude Eburne — though she lost the final “e” of her first name in Monogram’s credits — who previously had experience in a prison movie in 1933’s Ladies They Talk About as an inmate herself, a madam who concealed her bordello under the guise of a manicure shop and got busted by a cop who accidentally brought his wife in for a manicure!) and gets a job even more easily! Dave’s friend Jeff Palmer (Ben Alexander, who was Jack Webb’s regular partner on the original 1950’s TV series Dragnet — on which Robert Kent also played a cop!), the reporter who wrote the story about him that appeared in his paper and broke Tyler’s case open, leading to his parole, helps him get re-established and says that several employers have offered him jobs. Tyler takes the one working in an investment company owned by Gregory Warren (Sidney Blackmer), whom we’re soon told (as if we couldn’t have guessed, given who’s playing him!) was the person who actually framed Tyler for the crime and got him sent to prison in the first place. Warren starts assigning Tyler to drive his sister Julie (Anne Nagel, on loan from Universal and turning in by far the best performance in the film) around on various errands, and proximity works its magic and the two start falling in love. Naturally she has no idea either that her current boyfriend is a parolee or her brother is the crook who framed him, and Dave is worried that she’ll break off with him if she finds out about his ex-con status.

Dave ends up in a low-class bar (the sort of hangout he’s not supposed to be at) drinking alcohol with a crook he knew in prison named Sniffy Johnson (Pat Flaherty) — we never learn his real first name; maybe it was something like Ethelbert — who claims he knows who framed Dave but won’t tell him unless Dave joins him in a robbery of a fur warehouse he has planned. Instead of doing what any even remotely sensible person in this situation would do — go to the police and offer to go undercover with Sniffy and pretend to be part of the robbery so Sniffy can be arrested — Dave joins the robbery but then sabotages it, turning the burglar alarm at the warehouse on himself and holding a gun on Sniffy to get Sniffy to tell him who framed him. Sniffy does so but is later shot dead by the building’s watchman (at least I think that’s what happened: we see him flee and then we see the watchman pull out his own gun and fire two bullets at him), and Warren orders his henchman Joe Russell (Norman Willis) to kill Dave before he can spill the secret to the police — only in the meantime parole officer Bennett has done one of his snap searches of Dave’s room and found a gun under the mattress (why did he have one when he knew that owning a firearm was one of the bozo no-nos that would send him back to prison?). When Dave returns to his room Bennett arrests him and the next time we see him he’s back in prison, in prison clothes, facing the six more years of his original sentence — only he gets out because in the meantime Warren and Joe Russell have had a falling-out, they’ve fatally wounded each other, and just before he died Warren told all and confessed his involvement in the original crime to protect his sister and enable her and her boyfriend to be happy together “outside.” Julie shows up at the prison with a signed statement from her brother and a pardon from the governor, and she and Dave lip-lock at the fadeout.

There are a couple of at least unusual, if not truly “original,” elements in this crime drama — Warren’s offer of a job to the parolee he framed in the first place and his ’tis-a-far-far-better-thing-I-do willingness to exonerate Dave on his deathbed — but for the most part Convict’s Code is a pretty ordinary crime melodrama for the period. I had hopes for it mainly because of the director, Lambert Hillyer, an underrated silent-era veteran who made the last two horror films produced by Universal while the Laemmle family still owned the studio, The Invisible Ray and Dracula’s Daughter (both 1936) and who made one of the greatest superhero serials ever, the first Batman (1943), distinguished not only by Hillyer’s atmospheric direction but by Lewis Wilson, the first actor ever to play Batman and to my mind the best. Unfortunately, Hillyer’s usual acumen for getting a lot out of a low budget wasn’t on display here; Convict’s Code is as uncreatively directed as it is written and very little of the film has any visual atmosphere at all. The main problem with Convict’s Code is the hero’s sheer naïveté: it’s hard for us to work up much sympathy for someone who’s stupid enough to think that the way to exonerate himself out of a false charge for a previous crime is to get in bed (figuratively and almost literally, since after a night out on the town with Sniffy he passes out and wakes up in Sniffy’s bed) with a known criminal and commit a new one. One gets the impression that the actor this film really needed, James Cagney (way too big a star for this sort of thing in 1939), would have made Dave Tyler seem streetwise instead of stupid — the real Cagney made a film in which he was framed and unjustly imprisoned in 1939, with the marvelous title Each Dawn I Die, and though not generally considered one of his best it’s a damned sight better than Convict’s Code.