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Noir or Not: Convict’s Code (1939)

By Karen Burroughs Hannsberry


The next entry in our Noir or Not series is Convict’s Code, a 62-minute Monogram Pictures release starring Robert Kent, Anne Nagel, and Sidney Blackmer.


The first thing I noticed about this film is that it was released in 1939. In my opinion – and, believe me, there are more film noir-related opinions than you can shake a stick at – the classic film noir period began in 1940 and ended in 1959. That, in and of itself, would prohibit Convict’s Code from being considered a film noir. But don’t be discouraged; just as there’s a “neo-noir” category of films released post-1959, there’s a “proto-noir” distinction for those that came out before 1940.


As the film opens, we’re shown a newspaper with a kind of “where are they now?” feature on a famous college athlete, Dave “The Great Whizz” Tyler (Robert Kent). We don’t have to wait long to find out exactly where he is now – he’s been in prison for three years on a bank robbery rap, but he can be released on parole if he has a job waiting for him. Fortunately for Dave, he obviously has said job, because we learn in the next scene that he’s getting sprung. (We also learn that if he violates his parole, he’ll be sent back to the Big House to serve the remaining six years of his term.) Incidentally, Dave continues to maintain his innocence, and plans to prove it once he’s on the outside. 


Dave has a number of restrictions as part of his parole. For the next six years, he can’t change his residence or his employment without his parole officer’s consent. He can’t associate with persons with a criminal record. He can’t drink “intoxicating” liquor or possess any guns. He can’t get married without the parole officer’s permission. And he has to report weekly to his parole officer. And if you think that he’s going to stick to each of these rules, you’re watching the wrong movie.


Tyler secures a room in a boarding house and promptly starts his new job, working for an investment company run by Gregory Warren (Sidney Blackmer). I don’t think I’m giving too much away when I tell you that Warren – and his right-hand man, Joe Russell (Norman Willis) – were responsible for the robbery Dave was accused of, as well as the elaborate frame involving six witnesses that resulted in Dave’s conviction. 


Others on hand are Warren’s beloved younger sister Julie (Anne Nagel), and Jeff Palmer (Ben Alexander), Dave’s newspaper reporter friend who – like the prison warden and Dave’s parole officer – believes that Dave committed the robbery, but (unlike the warden and parole officer) is quickly convinced when Dave passionately proclaims his innocence (“Every one of those six witnesses lied when they testified against me,” Tyler tells his friend. “Somebody framed me beautifully.”) As for Julie, after a meet-cute involving a dollhouse, it’s not long before she and Dave fall for each other, but Dave is determined to keep his past a secret from her.


The bulk of the film involves Dave’s attempts to track down the witnesses who testified against him during his trial, his close calls with violating his parole (including getting into a fist fight while trying to protect Julie from a masher), and the efforts of Warren and Russell to railroad Dave back into prison. But is this noir? Or not?


One of the most noirish aspects of the film is Dave’s bitterness over being imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, and his resentment toward the restrictive parole rules he’s forced to follow once he’s on the outside. Most of the time, he’s an easygoing, rather earnest sort of fellow, but in several instances, without warning, he erupts like a volcano and his inner indignation comes pouring forth like hot lava. In one scene, he complains to his friend Jeff that the system gives parolees just enough liberty “to make you want more. And then they dare you to take it. They may not have a gun stuck into me, but they might just as well have. And I’m supposed to take it for six years. And then what am I? A guy with a crime record pinned onto me.”


The film is also suggestive of the classic noir period with Dave’s unwavering determination to clear his name, tracking down clues like an archetypal private dick. And noir’s emblematic feeling of overarching doom rears its head every time Dave runs into a dead end, and with each circumstance that brings him closer to violating his parole. Dave’s feelings of frustration are compounded by his inability to be truthful with Julie. “I’ve gotta find someone who can help me,” he tells Jeff. “It’s more important than ever now.”

Dave ventures even further into noir territory when he encounters Sniffy Johnson (Pat Flaherty), a fellow convict who has recently been released (and who wastes no time telling Dave what a sap he was for getting released on parole instead of serving his full term). Sniffy’s interested in more than just reminiscing about old times – he wants Dave to join him in knocking over a fur warehouse: “You’re the kinda guy that can take it and keep his mouth shut,” he tells him. Although Dave initially turns down the offer, his interest level rises like yeast bread when he learns that Sniffy knows who was responsible for framing him into prison – but Sniffy won’t spill the beans unless Dave teams up with him on the fur heist. Three guesses as to whether Dave decides to commit yet another parole violation by throwing in with Sniffy – and the first two don’t count.


So, what’s the bottom line on Convict’s Code? As I stated from the outset, the fact that the film was released before 1940 excludes it from the classic noir distinction. It’s clearly lacking such film noir tropes as flashbacks, voiceover narration, and a femme fatale. And although we’ve got Dave’s bitterness clouding his ability to move on with his life, and life continuously sticking out a foot to trip him up in his quest to clear his name, that’s not quite enough – in my opinion – to think of the film as anything more than “proto-noir lite.” In other words, in my book, Convict’s Code is not noir.


 

Other Stuff about the Convict’s Code Cast:


Tyler’s parole officer was played by Victor Kilian, who can be seen in such popular films as Boys’ Town (1938), Blood and Sand (1940), and The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). He also gained a new generation of fans in the 1970s as a result of his role as Grandpa Larkin (also known as “The Fernwood Flasher”) on TV’s Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.


A 1950 Tony Award-winner for his performance in Come Back, Little Sheba, Sidney Blackmer holds the distinction of portraying President Theodore Roosevelt in eight separate movies. You might also recognize Blackmer from Little Caesar (1931), Heidi (1937), Duel in the Sun (1946), and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), where he played Roman Castevet.


Another familiar face in the cast was Maude Eburne, who played the landlady of the house where Dave rented a room. Eburne started out in silent films and she was a prolific performer during the pre-Code era, with appearances in 40 films between 1930 and 1934.


 

The Film Masters' Restored Version of "Convict's Code" is now available for purchase for DVD here.


Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of two books on film noir, Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. She is also the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages film noir newsletter, founded in 2004. She can be found on Twitter at @thedarkpages.

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