South West Silents' very own Mark Fuller explores Euerka's The Masters of Cinema Series
new Blu-ray release of Outside the Law (1920) plus a chance to win a copy!
Although these days Lon Chaney is thought of mainly as a pioneer of Horror, the fact was that he was seen at the time as a dramatic actor, a powerful leading man with a brooding presence; particularly at this time, in 1920, the Grand Guignol make-ups and his famous ability to inhabit them and, when required, make seeming monsters human, were in the future. Many of those films would be made in partnership with director Tod Browning, and in this new release from Eureka in their Masters of Cinema strand, we get to see the early days in that relationship.
Outside The Law is more interesting than an exercise in Before They Were Famous though; it’s fascinating as an early example of the Gangster movie genre, and in many ways can be seen as a prototype of the 1930s Gangster cycle, starting in the pre-code era but carrying on through, and particularly those associated with Warner Brothers. It also has other surprises in store.
Firstly, the film is set in San Francisco’s Chinatown; but the positioning of the gangs is possibly counterintuitive; the two rival gangs are a long-established family business led by Silent Madden (Ralph Lewis) controlling gambling dens, and a newer gang of street thieves hoping to spoil the situation, if not necessarily take over the gambling house. Both gangs are white, however; the local Chinese community have no part in either, but exist around them; indeed, the main Chinese character is community leader Chang Lo, who follows Confucius and has been attempting to wean the gambling house boss and his family onto a more righteous path. It seems unlikely, but this approach has been bearing fruit. This displeases, for reasons not made very clear, the leader of the street gang.
The film is essentially a three-hander; it was designed as a vehicle for Priscilla Dean as the hardened-yet-glamorous Molly, daughter of ‘Silent’ Madden; she partners ‘Dapper’ Bill, (Wheeler Oakman) a safe robber who has left the street gang, and the head of the thieves, ‘Black Mike’ Sylva is played by Lon Chaney.
Sylva frames Madden Senior during a staged shoot-out, sending him to jail; Molly and Dapper Bill carry out a jewellery heist and go into hiding from both Police and Sylva, while Chang Lo (E. Alyn Warren) attempts to negotiate a solution with the Police Chief that would keep Molly and Bill out of jail and allow them to go straight.
The racial politics are interesting then, if you remember Keaton’s The Cameraman and other films that depict Chinatown as a seething hotbed of rival Tong factions; but this being the 1920s we do have the “Unsupportable” (In the words of Kim Newman) casting of the Chinese characters; I mentioned Chang Lo earlier, his heroic assistant Ah Wing is Lon Chaney again, in fairly hideous make-up, but at least his character is on the side of the angels here. However, we do have Chinese Americans in lesser roles, most notably an uncredited 15-year-old Anna May Wong in a blink-and-you-miss-her part.
As the film progresses, one gets very strange foreshadowing of the gangster films to come; Oakman really does resemble Jimmy Cagney at times; one can just imagine a version with Bogart replacing Chaney, and perhaps Mary Astor instead of Priscilla Dean. As it was, Browning did direct a remake (it was his story) early in the sound era with new face Edward G. Robinson in the Chaney role.
The drama of whether the couple manage to go straight, or be caught by either the Police or Sylva before restoring the jewels to their owners is neatly ramped up as they start to bicker in their hideaway; an annoying (to us, and to them) incursion is that of a neighbour’s toddler, intertitled in a baby-talk fashion that may have you hurling something at the screen. The denouement, when it comes, is quite exceptionally violent; a gun battle/punch-up not unlike the brutal battle in Behind The Door; I’ve never seen so much biting in a Hollywood dust-up.
The film presented is a 4k restoration of a 1926 reissue 35mm dupe negative print; for the most part admirably clear and watchable, though there are issues; early on there is that coming and-going that denotes that there must have been some print shrinkage that the labs have done their best to correct; in the penultimate reel there is some nitrate decomposition scarring, mostly at the edges, out of the way of the main business, but occasionally affecting the entire image and briefly obliterating it; but this is temporary and it passes. Sadly, there are occasional missing frames, most obviously during the climactic fight; bearing in mind the violence on show, it’s possible that these are censorship cuts, or edits for the rerelease, rather than print damage. Although some continuity between shots is lost, it does accelerate the already-swift editing to a dizzying peak. Further evidence that this might be a post-release decision is an inclusion on the disc of the ending from a
vintage 16mm reduced home-screening print; that cuts out the climactic fight altogether.
The orchestral score for the film is by contemporary film composer Anton Sanko, and is truly excellent; it heightens the drama when necessary but never mickey-mouses, I hope Eureka (Or whoever commissioned the score originally) offer him further opportunities. The extras on the disc comprise the aforementioned Kim Newman interview, which is very good and he makes some interesting points; and the alternative ending, comprised of alternate takes and without the violence, from the 16mm.
Altogether an excellently put-together package of a fascinating and underappreciated film, those interested in Chaney’s career or Gangster Movie aficionados should make a beeline for it when it’s released on 13th June.
Thanks to The Masters of Cinema's team we have a brand new copy of Outside the Law (1920) up for grabs; just send us your answer to the question below via our contact page by mid-night on Sunday 12th June 2022 to be in with a chance. Good Luck!
Question: Which now lost 1927 film, which was set in London, was directed by Tod Browning and starring Lon Chaney as well?