Outside the Law (1920) – Film Review
Director: Tod Browning
Cast: Priscilla Dean, Lon Chaney, Wheeler Oakman
By Sarah Morgan
Actor Lon Chaney and director Tod Browning – two of the key figures in the development of the horror movie genre – are paired in a silent classic.
Chaney is not, however, one of the film’s main stars. Two largely forgotten actors – Priscilla Dean and Wheeler Oakman – play reformed gangster’s daughter Molly and thief Dapper Bill Ballard who join forces to pull a fast one on Black Mike Sylva (Chaney).
They make off with a fortune in jewels, but while holed up in an apartment away from prying eyes, fall in love and realise the only way forward is to go straight. Unfortunately, just as they’re about to give the loot back, Black Mike finds them…
Thrown into the mix is Chang Lo, a Confuscianist philosopher living in San Francisco’s Chinatown who tries to convince the villains who cross his path to see the error of their ways. His home becomes the battleground where Bill and Black Mike have their final showdown in one of the most extraordinary and brutal fight scenes ever committed to film.
Chaney actually plays two roles; as well as the truly evil Black Mike, he also crops up as Chang Lo’s plucky assistant Ah Wing. Yes, political correctness is not present here, with a number of clearly caucasian actors playing Chinese characters.
Chaney may have earned the nickname the Man of a Thousand Faces due to his make-up effects in the likes of Phantom of the Opera and the now lost vampire flick London After Midnight, but he isn’t fooling anybody here – Ah Wing is a caricature rather than a character.
Dean and Oakman are pleasant enough romantic leads, but child star Stanley Goethals, in the guise of a neighbour’s offspring who helps their alter egos see the error of their ways, leaves a lot to be desired. Frankly, his saccharine expressions are enough to drive anybody to crime, not make them leave it behind.
Outside the Law is an intriguing curiosity, worth a look for the aforementioned fight scene alone, but it’s not a patch on Browning and Chaney’s future collaborations – they went on to make many more memorable films together, including The Unholy Three, The Unknown and West of Zanzibar.
• 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from a 4K restoration conducted by Universal Pictures
• Musical score by Anton Sanko
• New video interview with author / critic Kim Newman
• Alternate ending from a 16mm print of the film, created in 1926 for a re-release of Outside the Law
• A Collector’s Booklet featuring an essay by Richard Combs
Outside the Law is released on Blu-ray by Eureka, £19.99