Monday, October 5, 2009

Outside the Law (Universal, 1920)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles a movie I’d downloaded off Outside the Law, a 1920 silent and the first of three versions Universal produced based on an original story by Tod Browning, who directed both this one and the first (1930) remake. Outside the Law is of interest mostly as an early vehicle for Lon Chaney, Sr. — one year after his star-making role in Paramount’s 1919 The Miracle Man (a film that is lost in toto, but Chaney’s most famous scene — in which he works for a fake faith healer and poses as a cripple, then straightens himself out again to pass it off as a miracle healing by his employer — exists because it was extracted and used in a 1930’s compilation film) — and, being Lon Chaney, he plays two parts.

Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown (courtesy of some quite impressive sets at Universal City), the film opens in the elaborate home/store live/work space of Chinese merchant Chang Lo (E. Alyn Warren), who is quoting the saying of Confucius that a society with the right set of laws would find it possible to reform human beings so there would be no crime and no need for the death penalty. He’s saying this at a dinner party where he’s hosting the city’s former vice king, Stanley Madden (Ralph Lewis), whom he’s persuaded to reform and go straight; and Madden’s daughter Molly (Priscilla Dean, top-billed). The dinner is being served by Chang Lo’s Chinese manservant, Ah Wing (Lon Chaney, in some not especially credible “Asian” makeup — his skills as a makeup artist would improve, as would his skills as an actor), who seems skeptical about his boss’s plans for social uplift but lets them pass.

Then we cut to another sequence in which gangster “Black Mike” Silva (Lon Chaney) and his sidekicks, Dapper Bill Ballard (Wheeler Oakman) and Humpy (John George), are plotting to stage a riot in Chinatown and use it to frame Stanley Madden for murder. The riot happens, a policeman is killed, and law enforcement is unable to win a murder conviction against Madden but he gets eight months in prison on a lesser charge — and Chang Lo predicts that he will come back with “murder in his heart” and try to kill the person or persons who framed him. Then Black Mike plans another job, the robbery of the Spencer jewel collection, this time intending to recruit Molly Madden to participate and frame her (exactly what he’s got against the Madden family is never made clear, but it’s obviously significant) — only Bill, who’s assigned to seduce Molly and get her to participate, instead falls genuinely in love with her and tries to get her to back out of the deal. Instead she insists on participating in the crime, working out a way to commit it without involving Black Mike and thereby avoiding his trap.

The robbery works, only since they’re wanted by the police and they have to worry about Black Mike confronting them as well, they end up spending the next six months holed up in an apartment on Nob Hill (called “Knob Hill” in the titles) — and these scenes are actually the most powerful parts of the movie: the relationship between Bill and Molly is a weird combination of love, attraction and frustration, not only because they can’t have sex with each other (not with the state censor boards looking askance at such relationships even in this genuinely “pre-Code” era!) but because they literally can’t leave: their only contacts with the outside world are regular deliveries from the grocery (though how they pay for them remains a mystery, since they haven’t been able to liquidate the jewels and they have no other apparent source of cash, legal or otherwise) and visits from a neighbor kid (Stanley Goethals, who grew up to be a literature professor and an expert on Hemingway who wrote the Cliff’s Notes summary of For Whom the Bell Tolls) who turns out to be the son of a police detective living in the same building. (We keep seeing this kid and wondering where his parents are, and eventually his mom turns up — we never see his dad but she tells Bill and Molly what her husband does for a living.)

Meanwhile, Chang Lo arranges with the police detective investigating the Spencer robbery and with the Spencer family not to prosecute if the culprits voluntarily return the jewels — which Bill is actually eager to do anyway, though it takes him time to talk Molly into it. Black Mike finally tracks them down and shows up, naturally wanting the jewels for himself, and eventually there’s a showdown which takes the principals back to Chang Lo’s house — the shootout is rather jumpy, though that may be an indication of the fragmentary form in which this film survived; and I was rather hoping that Ah Wing would get to kill Black Mike if only for the rather trippy experience of seeing Lon Chaney shoot Lon Chaney. Eventually the bad guys die, the good guys get their amnesty and there’s a tag scene with Chang Lo that ends abruptly, probably because some closing footage is still missing.

Outside the Law as presented here had bits and pieces of symphonic music which faded in and out — long stretches of the film unreeled in total silence — and was mostly surprisingly well preserved for a public-domain silent, but there were patches of severe nitrate deterioration in which the image faded almost to pure white. (There’s an “official” edition from Kino that may be superior, or may not — apparently the one surviving print was found in a farmhouse by one Miss Bishman, whose mother had stashed a print after a “traveling man” had left it behind without ever calling for it again, so I’m not sure if a better source for this film even exists.) Outside the Law is historically important as an early Tod Browning/Lon Chaney collaboration (frankly, their films together are generally the best in either man’s career — though Chaney’s two most famous films, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, were with other directors) but it’s also quite a good movie in its own right, especially those marvelously claustrophobic sequences in which the two lovebird crooks are hiding out together and the whole situation is getting on their nerves; at one point Bill compares it to being in prison, except that at least when you’re in prison you know when you’re going to get out again! And the movie holds up well in spite of a not terribly distinguished cast; Priscilla Dean overacts in the worst tradition of silent film stars, especially female ones (the part deserved the relative understatement of Gloria Swanson) and everybody — even Chaney, who got to be a more subtle and restrained actor later — leaves deep bite marks in the scenery.

Universal remade Outside the Law twice in the sound era, once in 1930 with Browning directing again, this time eliminating the whole Chinese aspect of the plot, with pre-Little Caesar Edward G. Robinson in the (Anglo) Chaney role of the criminal mastermind; and again in 1946 under the title Inside Job, with the story remodeled into a tale of a nice young couple, both of whom work in the same department store and are blackmailed into robbing it by a crook who knows of the woman’s previous criminal record. Both of those would probably be fun, and Browning’s own remake would undoubtedly be worth seeing even though Chaney’s performance in the 1920 version seems closer to James Cagney than Edward G. Robinson — Chaney even says “You dirty rat!” in one title — launching the interesting connection between those two actors that continued when Chaney anticipated Cagney’s snarling line delivery in his one talkie, the 1930 version of The Unholy Three, and concluded when Cagney played Chaney in the 1957 biopic The Man of a Thousand Faces.