Outside the Law (1920 film)

Outside the Law is a 1920 American crime film directed by Tod Browning[1] and starring Lon Chaney. Browning would remake the film in 1930 with a pre-Little Caesar Edward G. Robinson in Chaney's role as a gang leader.

Outside the Law
Film poster
Directed byTod Browning
Produced byTod Browning
Written byGardner Bradford
Tod Browning
Lucien Hubbard
StarringPriscilla Dean
Wheeler Oakman
Lon Chaney
CinematographyWilliam Fildew
Distributed byUniversal Film Manufacturing Company
Release date
  • December 26, 1920 (1920-12-26)
Running time
75 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageSilent (English intertitles)

Outside the Law is considered to be one of the first psychologically driven films in the gangster genre.[2] The picture was the second film on which Browning worked with Lon Chaney. The contrasting dual roles Browning wrote for Chaney as a heroic Chinese servant and an evil gangster are considered to have solidified the long-lasting collaboration between the two.[3] Outside the Law is one of only a handful of Browning's films that is not a horror film. The film has been commended for its strong female lead, saying actress "Priscilla Dean in this picture is a film revelation... [she] goes to the fore and remains there..."[4] In contrast to many films of the period, it generally depicts its Chinese characters favorably, most notably by having characters invested in the Confucian teachings of the teacher character, Chang Lo.


Silent Madden, a criminal leader in San Francisco, and his gangster daughter Molly (Priscilla Dean) have forsaken a life of crime after receiving counsel from Chang Lo, a Confucianist philosopher living in Chinatown. A despicable gangster named Black Mike Sylva (Lon Chaney) frames Molly's father for murder, causing Molly to lose faith in abiding the law and prompting her return to a life of crime. Black Mike plots to double-cross Molly as well during a jewelry theft, but Molly gets word from her gangster lover and foils Black Mike's plans. While hiding out from the law, Molly's hard heart is slowly melted by her gangster lover. The film ends with a climactic shootout.


This film was considerably longer in its original 1920 release. It was thought lost for some 50 years until a print was located in 1975. The newly found print was a 1926 re-release of the film by Universal after Chaney and Browning had moved over to MGM and achieved greater stardom. The scenes from the original release that appear to be trimmed or whittled down are certain plot motivations by the Ah Wing character, who originally had a bigger role in the story.


See also


  1. "Progressive Silent Film List: Outside the Law". silentera.com. Retrieved May 5, 2008.
  2. Cinemaweb review of Outside the Law (retrieved September 14, 2009)
  3. Bernard F. Dick, City of dreams: the making and remaking of Universal Pictures, p. 55
  4. Silentsaregolden.com reprint of Variety review
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