Outside the Law (1920)

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  • directed by Tod Browning
  • starring Priscilla Dean, Lon Chaney, Wheeler Oakman, Ralph Lewis, E. Alyn Warren, Wilton Taylor
  • Molly joins Black Mike’s gang to aid in a jewel robbery, but when she learns that she’s to be framed, she makes off with the loot and hides out in a tiny apartment.

Outside the Law mostly worked for me, due especially to a great job by Priscilla Dean in an unlikely type of role. Overall, though, the small threads introduced to color the simple crime tale failed to come together. I’m mostly referring to the Confucianism accents to the story and the yogi-esque character of Chang Lo, which were welcome additions to the otherwise familiar trappings of the gangster genre, but never quite graduated out of accent territory. One reason for the underdeveloped nature of some of the film’s themes and characters may be that the only print available now is the 1926 re-release that was trimmed down from the 1920 original. The film in any form was lost for a while until discovered in 1975. Unfortunately it was the studio-edited version that ended up surfacing.

The film takes place in San Francisco’s Chinatown and began with a meeting between Molly and her father, both criminally active, and Chang who tries to draw them out of the darkness with calming Confucian teachings. It doesn’t work at that point, as Madden ends up in jail for eight months and Molly ends up in league with the guy who framed him, and it kind of never works even though Lo sticks around as a passenger to all the action that follows. Those that he tries to reach end up arriving at some of his conclusions, yes, but for different reasons than he intended altogether. Molly is eventually reformed because of an awakening of her motherly spirit, not because she’s absorbed any of the teacher’s Eastern lightness. The Confucius stuff didn’t come across as a huge flaw of the film though I did wish that it was a little more harmonious with the main storyline. In my head I’ll pretend that the original version did a lot better by Chang Lo, his underling Ah Wing, and Confucius. Here, it was fine for what it was—slight decoration.

I thought, due to Lon Chaney playing two roles on opposing sides of a war, that this was going to be his show completely. But it turned out that it was another multi-faceted performance, Priscilla Dean’s, which left the biggest mark. In any other gangster film, Molly Madden would have most likely been the wife or girlfriend at home unsuccessfully trying to keep her man from walking out the door and taking that one last job. I say that not because of her gender but because of her demeanor and personal style in this film. When cooped up in the hideout apartment her dress, her hair, and her knitting activities create a perfect picture of tidy housewife. It isn’t until we see her clutch the gun hidden at her side or deliver a verbal smackdown on Bill for acting like an amateur that we get to see how serious she could be.

There always seems to be one tradition-bucking catch to Tod Browning’s films and with this one it was no doubt its centering a gang turf war story on the involvement of a woman with a clean appearance and growing yearnings for motherhood and family. It wasn’t often that he stepped outside of the horror genre and I think he deserves a lot of credit for this particular film. The locations were alive and refreshing and the gunfights were choreographed nicely. Story-wise it may not have all gelled, but there were many techniques and visuals that rung very familiar to what would eventually be seen in the noir and gangster genres of the future.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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