Women in black break the criminal code! One book, two movies

THE WOMAN IN BLACK by Susan Hill is an old-school ghost story in the style of M.R. James. A solicitor sitting with his family as the kids tell ghost stories reluctantly decides to set down one that happened to him, for the kids to read once he’s dead. We follow him to an isolated village to wrap up a deceased client’s estate, but it seems a spectral woman in black is watching wherever he goes. Ah, surely that’s his imagination, right? Right?

Much like the spooky stories of James’ era, this is slow, creepy, without gore, and full of descriptions of rural England (I don’t associate that with James in particular but it’s common to a lot of similar stories I’ve read). The results are effective and evocative, though the most nerve-wracking part was worrying whether the protagonist’s terrier would buy it (relax, he lives).

I’d probably have liked THE WOMAN IN BLACK (2012) more if I didn’t have the book fresh in my mind; it’s well executed but nowhere near the source material and the changes don’t improve anything (while Nigel Kneale’s TV adaptation also makes changes, I’ve read that it’s brilliant). Radcliffe plays the solicitor whose visit to the old mansion drives the eponymous ghost into a fit of even more child-slaying than usual — she’s a lot more murderous than the print version. Radcliffe is good in a tortured role and the film revealed to me that Hammer Films has (appropriately) risen from the dead, as they were one of the production companies involved in this.“You should have left when we told you to.”

The next Howard Hawks films following Fazil are lost, and I mistakenly thought that included The Dawn Patrol. It doesn’t but by the time I learned that I’d already watched THE CRIMINAL CODE (1931) out of sequence. Not that I think watching in sequence would give this adapted stage play any more oomph.

The key players are Phillips Holmes as a young man who kills a guy in a fit of passion and Walter Huston as the ambitious prosecutor who steamrolls Holmes and his attorney, resulting in the young man getting a ten-year stretch in the state pen. Wouldn’t you know, when Huston loses his bid for governor he gets prison warden as a consolation prize. And it seems a lot of crooks he put away have some resentment …

This has some striking moments, such as Huston confronting an angry mob of prisoners but the clunky moments outweigh the startling ones and Holmes is too bland to make his role work. What does work is Boris Karloff as a fellow inmate of Holmes, quietly plotting to settle scores with a pair of squealers. Karloff steals scenes merely by standing there, even though he’s not credited on that poster above; while he’d been working in Hollywood for more than a decade but mostly extras and bit parts. A role like this was quite a step up, though of course his star-breaking role as Frankenstein’s creature is looming. In any case The Criminal Code is better as a Karloff film than a Hawks. “What good is it to save a man if you destroy him while you do it?”


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