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Outside the Law (Kino)
Directed for Universal Studios by Tod Browning in 1920, Outside The Law tells the story of a woman named Molly Madden (Priscilla Dean), nicknamed Silky Moll, whose father (Ralph Lewis) is framed for a crime that he didn't commit by a hard boiled mobster named Black Mike Sylva (Lon Chaney). With her father doing time behind bars, Molly falls in with a bad crowd, specifically with a man named Dapper Bill (played by Wheeler Oakman, who was married to Ms. Dean at the time), a safe cracking expert who works with her on a jewel heist. Bill, however, knows something she doesn't: those behind the plan had hoped to throw her to the cops and make off with the loot, leaving her to take the fall. When she learns of this, and she Bill split with the gems and hide out in a dingy apartment until things start to cool down a bit.
Once they do, the two of them befriend a young boy (Stanley Goethals) who lives next door, his genuine sense of innocence seemingly charming the two criminals into turning from a life of crime to talk the straight and narrow (pay attention to a fair bit of obvious religious symbolism in these scenes, clearly an allegory to the transformation that these characters undergo). To do this, they decide to return the jewels and hope to start a ‘normal' life together, maybe even have some kids. But of course, as anyone who has ever participated in a jewel heist and then thought better of it will tell you, returning stolen gems isn't as easy as it sounds. After all, you still stole them in the first place.
This is a pretty gritty film for its time, a melodrama to be sure, but an atypical one. It's got a slightly seedy feel to it at times that lends to its authenticity and while the story is more than a little on the predictable side, it moves at a pretty decent pace. The cinematography isn't super fancy (there's virtually no camera movements in the picture but everything is framed quite effectively) but there are a few inspired shots in the movie that are interesting to see, production values are up to snuff and the set design works well enough in the context of the story being told. Browning's direction is solid, controlling the pacing well enough and, if never super flashy, definitely more than solid. The jewel stealing scene in particular is well done and quite amusing to watch. There early scenes, set in San Francisco's Chinatown, might irk more sensitive viewers as they feature Caucasian actors made up to look Chinese, but as most of us know, this was common practice in the industry during the era in which this film was made. That doesn't excuse the practice, but obviously historical context is important and, where other films weren't always kind to minorities, the Chinese characters in Outside The Law are never portrayed in a negative light.
The performances in this silent picture are interesting to see. Lon Chaney (who actually has a double role in the film, which is interesting, the second role being a heavily made up part where he plays a man named Ah Wing), directed here by Browning for the second time after their work together on The Wicked Darling a year prior in 1919, is underused here but good when he is on the screen. Wheeler Oakman delivers a pretty standard performance, he never stands out as awful but then neither does he ever stand out as amazing. Stanley Goethals is fine as the little kid, but he's basically just tasked with playing a little kid so maybe is wasn't such a stretch for him. Top billed Priscilla Dean does, more often than not, steal the show. She plays the hardened and increasingly street-wise Molly Madden well, throwing plenty of enthusiasm into the role without ever coming across as if she's chewing the scenery. Obviously, as this is a silent picture, she relies more on body language and facial expressions to create her character but she does this well, it's a good part for her and she makes the most of it. It's an atypical female role for the era, with Molly really standing up to the men in the film, every bit their equal with a gun and a scowl! Both Dean and Oakman worked with Browning previously in 1920's The Virgin Of Stamboul. Ten years later in 1930, Browning would remake the film with Edward G. Robinson and Mary Nolan.
Outside The Law comes to Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 1.33.1 and taking up just over 21GBs of space on the 25GB disc. There are sequences here that look fantastic, and there are sequences here that are in pretty rough shape but overall, for a hundred year old film, this looks quite good. Contrast is generally pretty strong, blooming occasionally, but black levels more often than not look pretty nice here. There are no noticeable issues with compression artifacts nor is there any noticeable noise reduction or edge enhancement to complain about. All in all, this is a nice transfer of a less than perfect print but fans of older movies, silent films in particular, should have no problem with the picture quality save for a few scenes here and there.
The soundtrack is provided in 24-bit DTS-HD 2.0 and it sounds beautiful. The score from Anton Sanko a lot of very impressive depth to it and it sounds crystal clear. The levels are balanced nicely and you can make out all of the different instruments used in the music perfectly. Intertitles (that look to be recreated) are provided in English only.
The main extra feature on the disc is an audio commentary track from film historian Anthony Slide. In this track, Slide goes over the state of Universal Studios at the time, how the picture has its own sort of charm despite being primarily a gritty melodrama. He gives us plenty of detail on the lives and careers of both leading lady Priscilla Dean and director Tod Browning, the use of an actual Confucius quote early in the picture, the issues of race as they are portrayed in the film and the use of white actors playing minority roles, who really wrote the script for the film, how the film was marketed and also received theatrically, the presence of Lon Chaney in the picture, the child actor Stanley Goethals used in the movie (who was four when he made the picture and had no memory of it as an adult) and quite a bit more. It's a very informative track, well-researched and loaded with information.
The disc also includes a ten-minute alternate ending (taken from a 16mm 'Show-atHome' print that's comprised of different takes and which eliminates the fight scene. A nine-minute Footage Comparison is also included that shows the differences between the restored 35mm version of the movie and the 16mm alternate version of the film. Menus and chapter selection are also found on the disc.
Outside The Law is a historically significant crime melodrama that features a strong performance from Priscilla Dean and an okay performance from Lon Chaney. Browning's direction is occasionally quite creative, but the story never catches fire the way you hope it will. Still, it is a fascinating artifact and decent enough to be worth watching. Kino's Blu-ray release looks quite good, all things considered, and the commentary from Anthony is excellent. Recommended to silent film enthusiasts, a solid rental for the curious.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.