In a documentary on John Ford called Becoming John Ford, one of the commentators points out that “Raoul Walsh’s characters act out of adventure, Howard Hawks’ act out of professionalism, and John Ford’s act out of tradition.” It is an interesting way to track and study the three directors’ work.
The Criminal Code, directed by Howard Hawks in 1931.
The picture is about a new warden (played by Walter Huston) who takes over a prison populated mostly by the criminals he put away during his stint as District Attorney.
His first day, he and the prison guards listen from his office as hundreds of prisoners crowd the yard, growling, howling, wanting his blood.
The warden decides to go down to meet them. He is advised not to. The chief of the guards insists that he is accompanied.
The warden says, “When my name was on the District Attorney’s door, I was District Attorney. My job was to get convictions and I got them. As an elected governor, I’d govern. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t elected. Well, here I am, warden, and that’s what I’m going to be, warden… This seems to be a matter between me and the boys down there, we’ve got to settle it ourselves.”
He steps out into the yard, lights a cigar, and slowly walks out into the crowd of prisoners. At any moment, they could tear him to pieces but somehow the growling and howling quiets. He eyes the men he means to look after. They cannot meet his gaze.
Now they know he will do his job. They may hate him, but they must respect him because he is professional, from the same ranks as John Wayne’s sheriff in Rio Bravo and the flyers in The Dawn Patrol and Only Angels Have Wings. This is a great, forgotten Hawks picture.