Tod Browning’s tale of San Francisco underworld crime features Lon Chaney’s dual role as murderous thug Black Mike Sylva, and Ah Wing, a small-time Chinese pacifist.
Crime boss ‘Silent’ Madden (Ralph Lewis) and his daughter ‘Silky Moll’ Madden (Priscilla Dean) are friends with legitimate and respected Chinese-American community leader Chang Low (E.A. Warren), whose influence is slowly shifting the Maddens’ thinking toward reform. Ruthless ‘Black Mike’ Sylva (Chaney) and ‘Dapper Bill’ Ballard (Wheeler Oakman) are conspiring to frame ‘Silent’ Madden and turn Molly against recent positive influences. When Madden is wounded, shot by Sylva’s gang in Chinatown, he is helped away to safety by Low’s dedicated servant Ah Wing (Chaney). Meanwhile, Sylva has a gang member plant a gun that has been used to shoot a beat cop and tell the police its location and where the shootist is — framing Madden, who receives a eight-month prison sentence. Sylva then begins to exert his manipulation of Molly, pulling her back into criminal activities, with the plan of double-crossing her.
This hard-edged film, costarring Priscilla Dean as the tough moll who can talk a blue streak of razorblades, is a pinnacle among the Browning-Chaney crime dramas. — Carl Bennett
2000 DVD edition
Outside the Law (1920), black & white, 75 minutes, not rated,
with Shadows (1922), color-toned black & white, 68 minutes, not rated.
Film Preservation Associates, distributed by Image Entertainment, ID5838DSDVD, 0-14381-58382-3.
One single-sided, dual-layered, Region 1NTSC DVD disc, 1.33:1 aspect ratio image in windowboxed 4:3 (720 x 480 pixels) interlaced scan MPEG-2 format, ? Mbps average video bit rate, ? kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound, English language intertitles, no foreign language subtitles, 15 chapter stops; snapper DVD case, $24.99.
Release date: 27 June 2000.
Country of origin: USA
This DVD edition apparently utilizes the same slightly-windowboxed video transfer produced by David Shepard that was released on laserdisc and VHS videotape in the 1990s. The 35mm source print appears to be shrunken in places, with characteristic picture geometry movement within the frame, and there is some persistent frame jitters, but much of the material is of often very-good to sometimes excellent quality, with reasonably sharp image detail and a broad range of greytones that often favor the darker tones. There are also signs of beginning decomposition, splices, light speckling, very little dust, and slight exposure fluctuations.
The older video transfer is of reasonable quality, with the technicians doing a good job of keeping the sometimes-less-than-perfect source print in focus throughout. However, the transfer has been made at sound speed to accommodate synchronization of the preexisting soundtrack, resulting in human movement that is distractingly fast. The disc still looks pretty good on high-definition systems, but emphasizes some unnecessary video edge sharpening.
The film is accompanied by an older orchestral music score, with synchronized sound effects, that is serviceable but not up to modern standards.
We recommend the film as a required excursion into the dark world of director Browning, the versatility of Lon Chaney, and the gritty toughness of Priscilla Dean. And we recommend this Image DVD edition as the best currently available.
USA: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 1NTSC DVD edition from Amazon.com. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
Canada: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 1NTSC DVD edition from Amazon.ca. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
2009 DVD edition
Outside the Law (1920), color-tinted black & white, 75 minutes, not rated,
with The Trap (1922), black & white, 46 minutes. not rated.
Alpha Video, ALP 5800D, UPC 0-89218-58009-2.
One single-sided, single-layered, Region 0NTSC DVD disc, 1.33:1 aspect ratio image in full-frame 4:3 (720 x 480 pixels) interlaced scan MPEG-2 format, ? Mbps average video bit rate, ? kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound, English language intertitles, no foreign language subtitles, 7 chapter stops; standard DVD keepcase, $6.98.
Release date: 28 April 2009.
Country of origin: USA
This budget DVD edition has been mastered from a full-frame video transfer utilizing a 35mm source print. Whether the source print is the same as that utilized for the Image edition noted above, or the same transfer has been digitally enlarged to full-frame (this edition runs suspiciously at the same frame rate — too fast), the quality of the print is much the same as the Image edition. The difference between the two editions is that the Alpha disc has been encoded at a low bit rate and low picture resolution such that digital defects such as compression artifacts and horizontal picture details that jump between coarse resolution lines are easy to spot, especially on high-resolution systems. Whether intentional of not, we don’t know, the picture has a pale violet tint to the highlights.
All of the film’s intertitles have been reset as video-based still frames either to discourage video piracy among the cheap video producers or to disguise where the video transfer came from — either way, as collectors, the preference will still be for the original intertitles.
The film is accompanied by an original music score performed on MIDI keyboards by Kevin Slick. Annoying amateurish, at best.
We still recommend the older Image disc noted above as the best available edition of Outside the Law.
USA: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 0NTSC DVD edition from Amazon.com. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
Canada: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 0NTSC DVD edition from Amazon.ca. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.