Outside The Law

US (1920) Dir. Tod Browning

Who would have thought that going straight after a life of crime would be possible, not from a stint in prison, or a rehabilitation programme but by listening to the words of Confucius. It probably wouldn’t work today but in 1920, times were different.

In Chinatown, former criminal Silent Madden (Ralph Lewis) has reformed after counsel from Chinese Confucian philosopher Chang Lo (E. Alyn Warren). Madden’s daughter Molly (Priscilla Dean) is also keen to turn over a new leaf but is harder to convince, since her boyfriend Dapper Bill Ballard (Wheeler Oakman) is a gangster working for Madden’s enemy, Black Mike Sylva (Lon Chaney).  

Sylva devises a plan to frame Madden for murder then commit a jewel heist with Molly but have the police catch her with the goods. However, Bill doesn’t want Molly to suffer and tells her of Sylva’s plan, and together they hatch a counter plan to run away with the jewels and shop Sylva instead. The first part works but the second part doesn’t forcing Bill and Molly into hiding as both Sylva and the police hunt for them.

Tod Browning may be known primarily for his horror output like Dracula and Freaks, but he was adept at other genres too as this overlooked crime drama attests. Outside The Law saw Browning in a further collaboration with his two favourite muses – Priscilla Dean and Lon Chaney – in a tale of feuding gangsters with a philosophical bent to the moral conceit. It’s a few years away from being proto-noir yet one can see nascent traces of the suspense Browning would create in his later horror films.

Like a sizeable number of silent films, Outside The Law was subject to cuts and years in the wilderness in various forms, even thought lost until 1975. The reconstructed version on this new Blu-ray release from Eureka is the 76-minute cut largely taken from the 1926 redacted reissue, although this release has an alternate ending also thought lost from 1926.

Curiously, the cuts made were to scenes featuring Chinese character Ah Wing, played by Chaney in dubious but typically masterful prosthetics. It is not known why but given both Chinese men are played by Caucasians, I doubt it was a sensitivity issue. At least they don’t speak “Me so solly” patois, instead Chang Lo in particular is shown as thoughtful, learned man. And look out for a brief appearance by an uncredited Anna May Wong.

Quite ahead of its time in 1920, was the character of Molly, not quite a modern feminist but a much stronger and forceful presence than the usual silent film female. A spiky, confident, and intense turn from Priscilla Dean, Molly knows her mind and refuses to allow any man to change it for her, including her father. Nothing is discussed, but we are to assume being the daughter of a gangster gave her this iron will and formidable resolve.

Molly is the real target of Sylva’s revenge campaign – he has no real beef with her father but knows what a daddy’s girl she really is. By seeing Madden arrested, Molly loses her faith in the police and reverts to her old ways just as she was on the cusp of accepting the Confucian life of honesty and peace. Again, the role reversal is fresh – the father being the one into the new age ideals whist the daughter is the cynic.

Once again, Molly is the one who formulates the swerve on Sylva, and when she and Bill hideaway out of town in a small apartment, Molly wears the trousers. Browning even goes a far as to have Molly be insensitive towards a young boy (Stanley Goethals) from across the hall whom Bill befriends. Even in this pre-flapper era of Hollywood, it is rare for a woman to be the one most resistant to a child’s charms and the man being the broody one.

Browning’s screenplay, co-written with Lucien Hubbard, may be verbose for a silent film but the verbiage is smart in how it explores the criminal mind as it goes into detox. Bill and Molly may be living a quiet domestic life (she still does the cooking and cleaning because 1920) away from the shady environment of the past, but without freedom of movement, they’ve not really escaped anything. As Bill opines, he feels “imprisoned like a criminal” – a deliberately ironic line from someone missing said irony.

Psychologically, the grey area Molly and Bill are in is integral to the suspenseful drama. Sylva eventually finds them and the inevitable showdown ensues, only to be interrupted by a police officer; in the space of a few minutes, Molly and Bill’s self-preservation sees them ride on both sides of the moral road, switching with perhaps too much ease for a couple on the path to redemption, but old habits die hard.

Gangsters don’t go down easy which is why Browning ends with a rather violent shootout in Chinatown – I’m talking bloodied faces, injuries, shootings, stabbings, and fatal falls, something hardly seen in cinema at this point. The fights are tight and physical, no flailing arms and prat fall bumps, this is visceral stuff, whilst the editing is frantic and crucial to creating a narrative within this punch up.  

Formerly a protégé of D. W Griffith, Browning took what he learned and refined it to create his own visual language, his use of imagery to provoke. A scene in which sunlight against the frame of a kite projects a silhouette of a cross is an example, predating such venerated masters of this practice like Eisenstein and Hitchcock. One can also see the synergy between the director and his two leads working like alchemy.

Outside The Law is an impressive little film, ahead of its time yet criminally overlooked, which may be why Browning remade it in 1930 with Edward G. Robinson. I’m curious to see how they compare and contrast but I really enjoyed this version.

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