The influence of Chang Low (E. Alyn Warren) on San Francisco's Chinatown has been considerable as he has a long list of reformed criminals who has he taken under his wing with his Confucian philosophy and turned from the life of crime they had previously been indulging in. One of those is Silent Madden (Ralph Lewis), who has become a close friend; he is on the borderline, and has a grown daughter called Molly (Priscilla Dean) who has yet to adopt the straight and narrow. And if Black Mike Sylva (Lon Chaney Sr) has anything to do with it, she never will - he's not her partner in crime, she has a boyfriend, Dapper Bill Ballard (Wheeler Oakman) to fulfil that role, in fact he wants her behind bars...
If Outside the Law is remembered at all, it is as an early collaboration between star Chaney and director Tod Browning, both of whom are credited with fuelling the general audience's appetite for the then-nascent horror genre. Not that they made many horror films, though Chaney would be known for the lead in The Phantom of the Opera above all and by the nineteen-thirties Browning cemented his reputation as the director of Dracula and Freaks, among others, but their output together before Chaney's untimely demise would largely be termed melodrama with extreme elements, often with Chaney in contorting makeup to impress the adoring public. There's no real equivalent to him these days.
Especially given his propensity for dressing up as Chinese characters, despite being a white guy, but that was part of his repertoire and he even played one here in a supporting role, apparently for the reason that he wanted to fight with himself in the grand finale where a massive punch-up crossed with a shoot-out ensued. These little conceits appeared to be part of Chaney and Browning's sense of humour, which could be rather opaque to non-initiates, though naturally the racial aspect renders it less than acceptable over a hundred years later. In fact, there were plenty of tropes from the day that wouldn't play well today: Universal knew what its audience wanted and were more than prepared to give it to them, with the result that Outside the Law operates more as an insight into popular entertainment of the twenties - the nineteen-twenties.
One part which does not run too smoothly is where Molly and Bill hide out after a jewel theft at a posh party, and though they avoid the trap Sylva has set for them, they are having misgivings about keeping the proceeds. The turning point is one of those patented early cinema moppets who were all over early cinema like a rash, especially in the wake of Charlie Chaplin's megahit The Kid, this little boy is supposedly so pure of heart that he can reform thieves just as well as Chang Low, but may well prove resistible to modern viewers, notably when he speaks in baby talk in the intertitles. However, one sequence that may draw them back in is that aforementioned brawl that climaxes the plot, as while there was nothing unusual in a silent movie fight on a major scale, the sheer brutality of what was on display was surprising. It was gory, characters flung themselves at one another and rained punches, bullets flew and downed others and it all went on for a substantial amount of time. Here, as in the heist, you could tell Browning was definitely engaged with the task in hand.
[Eureka release this on Blu-ray with the following special features:
1080p presentation on Blu-ray from a 4K restoration conducted by Universal Pictures | Musical score by Anton Sanko | New video interview with author / critic Kim Newman | Alternate ending from a 16mm print of the film, created in 1926 for a re-release of Outside the Law | PLUS: A Collector's Booklet featuring an essay by Richard Combs]