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With: Priscilla Dean, Wheeler Oakman, Lon Chaney, Ralph Lewis, E. Alyn Warren, Stanley Goethals, Melbourne MacDowell, Wilton Taylor, Anna May Wong
Written by: Gardner Bradford, Tod Browning, Lucien Hubbard
Directed by: Tod Browning
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 76
Date: 01/06/1921

Outside the Law (1920)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Bone Chinatown

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The second of 10 collaborations between director Tod Browning and the master of disguise Lon Chaney, Outside the Law (1920) is notable for Chaney playing two different roles. He's murderous villain Black Mike Sylva and kindly Ah Wing, servant to the wise Chang Lo (E. Alyn Warren), a student of Confucius.

Set in San Francisco, the story is really about gangster's daughter Molly "Silky Moll" Madden (Priscilla Dean) and Dapper Bill Ballard (Wheeler Oakman); when Molly's father is double-crossed and sent up the river, she steals some jewels and goes into hiding with Bill. Most of the focus is on them, with Bill slowly coming unraveled — and making friends with a neighbor boy (showing him how to make a kite, etc.) — and Molly trying to hold things together. The good news is that Dean is an incredible performer, registering impatience and distain with a twist of her mouth. So these sequences are engaging, even without Chaney.

The film also includes some great early looks at San Francisco's Chinatown, and a couple of exciting shootouts. It doesn't quite have the personal touches that Browning's later films would have, but it's a strong entertainment nonetheless. Anna May Wong can be glimpsed in the Chinatown sequences. Warning: Chaney's makeup as Ah Wing is insultingly grotesque, with protruding teeth and the works, but at least the Chinese characters are portrayed with more sympathy and depth than was usual at the time.

Kino Lorber released the film on a newly restored Blu-ray, and although it's far from perfect — the picture has a soft, pulsing spot in the middle from time to time — it's nicely sharp and clear. Anton Sanko provides a musical score for the movie, and film historian Anthony Slide contributes a commentary track. There's also a restoration comparison, and an alternate ending.

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