Their names most often thought of in association with horror, Tod Browning having directed Dracula and Freaks as well as London After Midnight, one of the most sought-after “lost” films of the era, and “The Man of a Thousand Faces” Lon Chaney having starred in the title roles of both The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, both were prolific in other genres such as their 1920 collaboration on the crime thriller Outside the Law.
Written by Gardner Bradford, Lucien Hubbard and Browning who would remake the film in 1930 starring Edward G Robinson as the protagonist, the original version of Outside the Law was also thought lost for fifty years until a print was discovered in 1975 of the slightly edited 1926 re-release version, sadly in some places poorly preserved with noticeable degradation of the celluloid at the edges of the frame in a number of scenes.
Presented on Blu-ray from a 4K restoration of these elements alongside an alternate ending taken from a 16mm “view at home” copy, of lower quality overall but significantly less damaged and including a brief coda cut from the only mast copy extant of the film, Outside the Law is the latest addition to Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series, more worth of attention than would be indicated by the awkward opening scenes which firmly set it as a product of its time.
The intertitles describing the “yellow torrent” falling upon San Francisco where the wise and sagely Chang Lo and his eager assistant Ah Wing are played by the undeniably Caucasian Edward Alyn Warren and Chaney in one of two roles in the film, fortunately the story swiftly moves beyond them to crime boss Silent Madden (Ralph Lewis); attempting to reform under the guidance of Chang Lo he is framed in the shooting of a police officer by his rival Black Mike (Chaney’s primary role) and sent to prison.
Black Mike’s next target Madden’s daughter Molly (Priscilla Dean), he is double crossed by his right-hand man Bill Ballard (Wheeler Oakman) who has fallen for her, assisting her in the planned jewel heist then escaping with her and the loot from the high society party at the Spencer mansion, but with both the police and Black Mike looking for them they must remain incognito.
Outside the Law atypical of the era in that it presents a woman handling a gun, even pointing it at a child, albeit unintentionally, the progress of the third act of enforced seclusion is tedious but leads to a finale featuring to a fight scene undoubtedly complex to stage and edit and featuring Chaney in both roles, somewhat compensating for the trite resolution which doesn’t follow convincingly from the entanglements and betrayals which established the characters and their dirty world in the early scenes.
Outside the Law will be available on Blu-ray from Eureka from Monday 13th June