Outside the Law (1920) | Tod Browning’s silent gangster thriller starring Lon Chaney sure packs a punch

From the director who gave us Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932) and the legendary silent screen star who was the Man of a Thousand Faces, comes the gritty 1920 American crime drama, Outside the Law, on Blu-ray (from a 4k restoration) as part of Eureka! Entertainment’s The Masters of Cinema Series.

While under contract at Universal Studios (1919-1923), director Tod Browning crafted a string of melodramas with strong female protagonists, including nine features with the studio’s leading actress of the era, Priscilla Dean, who was best known for her anti-heroine tough girl roles. Following his breakout role in 1919’s The Miracle Man, Lon Chaney became America’s foremost character actor thanks to his acting prowess and his incredible make-up skills.

Chaney and Dean first paired together in Browning’s 1919 melodrama The Wicked Darling, and on the back of that film’s success were reunited for Outside the Law, which not only showcases their talents but also Browning’s burgeoning aesthetic for melodrama and the grotesque. It also heralded the beginning of Chaney and Browning’s 10 picture collaborations which would result in some of their finest work on screen.

Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Outside the Law sees Dean playing tough gangster Molly Madden, the daughter of mob boss Silent Madden (Ralph Lewis) who is trying to go straight with the help of Confucianist philosopher, Chang Lo (E Alyn Warren). When he is framed for murder by notorious hoodlum Black Mike Sylva (Lon Chaney), Molly seeks out safecracker Dapper Bill (Wheeler Oakman) to stage a double-cross to get revenge. Let the chase begin!

Boasting elaborate set design, stylised camera compositions, meticulous editing, and thrilling action sequences, including a very bloody and violent climax that gives even today’s big-budget crime dramas a run for their money, Outside the Law is one of the most exciting, intelligent, psychological driven American silent crime dramas that makes it a certified genre classic.

While Dean is certainly the star of the film, it’s Chaney who steals every scene, and he gets to show his range and make-up skills in two very diverse roles: that of the vicious Black Mike and as Ah Wing, the heroic Chinese servant who ends up saving the day. Now, I know this is a [SPOILER], but Chaney gets to shoot himself in a cleverly-constructed scene that took two weeks to film. For that scene alone, it’s worth seeking out this gorgeous restoration release.

Now while much effort has gone into the preservation of the film, two short sequences were impossible to repair – and while it is unfortunately this happens during a crucial moment in the film, it is still great to see Outside the Law restored and made available to a new generation of cinema lovers more than a century after it was released.

SPECIAL FEATURES

  • 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
  • 1926 re-release alternate ending (from a rare Universal Show-At-Home 16mm print)
  • A collector’s booklet featuring an essay by Richard Combs

Available to order from: Eureka Store https://eurekavideo.co.uk/movie/outside-the-law/

About Peter Fuller

Peter Fuller is an award-winning print, radio and television journalist and producer, with over 30 years experience covering film and television, with a special interest in world cinema and popular culture. He is a leading expert on the life and career of Vincent Price and actively promotes the actor's legacy through publications, websites and special events.

Posted on June 9, 2022, in Must-See, Silent and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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