Film Reviews

Outside the Law (1920) – Blu-ray Review

From Eureka Entertainment comes a Blu-ray release of the 1920 Tod Browning film Outside the Law. Running to a mere 76-minutes, the film tells the story of Molly (Priscilla Dean), the daughter of Silent Madden (Ralph Lewis). With both mother and daughter former gangsters reformed by the counsel of Chang Lo (E. Alyn Warren), a Confucianist philosopher, they have made enemies in the course of their prior activities.

When the crime boss Black Mike Sylva (Lon Chaney) frames Molly’s father for murder, the vengeful daughter begins to doubt her faith in abiding by the law, and she decides to return to a life of crime. Joining Mike in a jewellery theft, Molly gets word from fellow criminal – and safecracker – Dapper Bill (Wheeler Oakman) that Mike is planning to double cross her during this job. Consequently, she is able to stage a double-cross of her own. Absconding with a valuable necklace, Bill and Molly hole-up in a San Francisco apartment for many weeks. During this time, they fall in love, and have their hard hearts melted by a young child living across the hallway. As they begin to be inspired by thoughts of a family of their own, and a life away from crime, they know they will eventually have to face-down their criminal nemesis and engineer a path back to the right side of the law.

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The first point to make about Outside the Law is that it is very patchy. A strong, tense opening, where Molly’s father is framed and events develop to her double-crossing the culprit, is followed by an extraordinarily slow second act. Bill and Molly spend an age in the apartment spending interminable amounts of time with an admittedly cute child. This leads to a resolving third act that is very short indeed, making the film somewhat thin. It is clear that far from being the proto-horror film suggested by the participants, it is very much the forerunner of the psychological drama. What we have here is somewhat thin, and not helped by much of the third act being unwatchable (from about 58 minutes on), as the film has degraded to a considerable degree.

This leads us on to the extras. There is an alternate ending that does not have quite the same degree of degradation as the footage for which it is standing in. Running to ten minutes, the fight between Bill and Mike is replaced with something similar but less action-heavy, and we finish with Bill and Molly professing their love for each other. This comes from a 1926 recut of the film and, despite the footage being different, its inclusion does make up for the equivalents scenes in the main feature being so damaged. It is fair to say very few restorations we have viewed have ever been so compromised.

The only other extra (apart from the accompanying booklet, which is normally a highlight, but was not available to us at the time of writing) is a twenty-minute-long interview with Kim Newman, a film critic, writer, and veteran of the Masters of Cinema imprint. He talks of Tod Browning’s work as a forerunner to modern horror but characterises them more as macabre melodramas. He talks of Lon Chaney’s penchant for playing freakish human beings and speaks informatively of Lon and Tod’s history together – all of this playing over footage from their works. He speaks about the Hays Code and how films of this era are before this came into effect, leaving these works able to address more adult themes than some from the decades following. This is all in about the first six minutes, before he discusses this film in-depth. Newman has an exceptional ability to provide potted histories quickly, and this is one of his stronger interviews for this series.

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This leaves this, however, a difficult release to recommend. Whilst no such work is ever without merit, as Eureka are preserving films that have often either been forgotten or need extensive restoration, here part of the film is restoration-proof, as the elements are just too far gone to make it watchable – though, largely, we can make out what is going on – making this a compromised release. With no video essay or commentary, we have a damaged film, accompanied by a short interview. This puts us in the odd position of saying this is not worth your time, but we hope it sells well enough to keep this series going.

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