Although Lon Chaney has two roles in Outside the Law (1920), he is not the star; rather, the film features early Tod Browning favorite Priscilla Dean. Dean plays Silky Moll, daughter of mobster Silent Madden (Ralph Lewis), and both are attempting to reform under the guidance of Confucian Master Chang Lo (E. Alyn Warren).
Black Mike Sylva (Chaney) interrupts the reformation by framing Silent Madden for murder, so that Silky Moll, like Lorraine Lavond in The Devil Doll (1939), now has a wrongly imprisoned father. Silky and Dapper Bill Ballard plan a jewel heist with Black Mike. Unknown to Mike, Silky is aware of his betrayal of her father and, with Bill, she double-crosses Mike.
Escaping with the heisted jewels, Silky and Bill hole up in an apartment. The time the criminals spend holed up in a claustrophobic setting is awash with religious symbolism that points to transformation. Browning, a Mason, repeatedly used religious imagery and themes. In West of Zanzibar (1928) Phroso stands in for the self-martyred Christ and calls upon divine justice under the image of the Virgin. In The Show (1927), the sadomasochistic drama of Salome is reenacted and almost played out in the actors lives (Martinu’s opera ‘The Greek Passion’ would explore that possibility in a much more sophisticated, and jarring, degree). Where East is East (1929) utilizes Buddhist and Catholic symbology. Priests and crucifixes play important parts in The Unholy Three (1925), Road to Mandalay (1926), Dracula (1931- possibly the most religious of the Universal Horror films) and Mark of the Vampire (1935).
Here, Bill tries to convince Silky that they can have a normal life. Puppy dogs and small boys begin to have effect on Silky, but it is not until she sees the shadow of the cross in her apartment that her tough facade gives way. Browning is not one to allow for a genuinely supernatural mode of transformation and reveals that the cross shadow is merely a broken kite, but its psychological effect on Silky is manifested in her actions, and her beauty. Bill notices the origin of the cross shadow and, realizing that Silky’s naive interpretation of that image has inspired her to renounce her crimes, Bill allows her to continue in her naivete. He draws the blind so she cannot see that her inspiration comes from a child’s kite. As Silky begins to drift away from a life of bitterness and crime, towards redemption, she physically grows more beautiful (a transformation achieved through soft lighting and composition). It is not the inspired symbology of the cross alone, but the prophecy of Chang Lo that frames the outcome. Chang Lo has been consistent in his belief that Silky will reform and he strikes a deal with the investigating constable that, should Silky return the jewels, all charges have to be dropped. Here again, Browning’s heart is too much with the criminal to allow for a full-blown punishment, something that later Hays Code Hollywood would demand.
Chaney’s small bit as Ah Wing is so subtle and so effective as to almost be unnoticeable. Browning remade Outside the Law in 1930. The remake starred Edward G. Robinson and received comparatively poor reviews. While the remake is not available on DVD, this original is. Kino Video has done a good job in its presentation, but the last quarter of the film is marred by nitrate deterioration, which is not altogether intrusive to viewing.