Outside The Law / Shadows

Outside The Law / Shadows (1920)
Image Entertainment
Cast: Lon Chaney, Priscilla Dean, Harrison Ford, Marguerite De La Motte

His success defied the conventional wisdom of the time. Movie stars during the period looked like John Gilbert or Rudolph Valentino. The great two-reeler clowns relied on physical elan rather than a chiseled chin and piercing eyes. Yet, with his craggy features and coarse looks, Lon Chaney not only enjoyed stardom during his lifetime but his legendary status has not flagged in the seven decades since his passing. In Shakespearean terms, he was a Caliban for the Silent Era, portraying characters caged inside flesh as tortured as their souls. (In Shakespeare’s "The Tempest," Caliban is a monstrous figure matched with a poetic sensitivity.) Amazingly, Chaney appeared in over 100 films, yet is primarily remembered for only two: "Phantom of the Opera" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." We may never see the recovery of such lost films as "The Miracle Man," but Image Entertainment in conjunction with Blackhawk Films has returned two Chaney films to the public with their new DVD double feature of "Outside The Law" and "Shadows."

"Outside the Law" and "Shadows" feature Chaney in Asian roles. His performances reveal moments of pathos and poignancy, directly due to his skill at giving intolerance a face and a soul. Unfortunately, both films suffer from racial politics prevalent at the time of their making. In "Shadows" for example, the title card writers actually punctuate Yen Sin’s dialogue with mispronounced "r"s, along with a kind of perforated grammar. The dilemma in accepting these films is that, despite certain offending elements (which should be identified as such), they possess flashes of clarity into the human condition, a paradox embodied in every Chaney creation.

In "Outside the Law," Chaney essays a dual role as vicious gangster "Black" Mike Sylva and Ah Wing, ever-watchful assistant to San Francisco sage Chang Low. Basically a morality play, "Outside the Law" charts the rocky course of two souls caught in the moral divide between good and evil. The film starts in the Chinatown home of Chang Low, as he instructs former criminals "Silent" Madden and his daughter Molly in the ways of Confucius and the righteous life. Both Madden and his daughter have seen life from its lowest angle, but respond to Chang Low’s teachings and attempt an honest living. Partly out of vengeance and a thirst for power, Sylva engineers the frame-up of Madden for a murder he didn’t commit. Devastated, Molly returns to crime with Sylva, unaware of his double-cross against her father. Along with Bill Ballard, Sylva and Molly plan a jewel heist during a posh party. We later find out that Black Mike has a vendetta against the entire Madden family and plans to trip-up Molly during the robbery, sending her to jail as well. Fortunately, Bill’s newfound love for Molly forces him to reveal the trap. Together, they decide to double cross Sylva by stealing the jewels and running away together.

The robbery and their getaway from Sylva are a success, but circumstances force the two outlaws to hole up in an apartment. There, the film’s framework comes fully into play. Ballard and Molly jab and spar with each other about living in fear and the possibilities of a normal, honest life as husband and wife. While Ballard sides on the domestic, Molly is too embittered to envision such an existence, depending on the jewels to wipe their crime slate clean. When the continual interruptions of a little boy from across the hall eventually awaken her maternal instincts, she undergoes a conversion and relents, confessing her love to Ballard and the desire to begin anew. But Sylva, slowly closing in on the loot and the two who crossed him, has other ideas for their future.

"Shadows" tells the story of the inhabitants of Urkey, a small seaside town. Chaney plays Yen Sin, a Chinese man washed ashore after a shipwreck. The residents pride themselves on their Christian piety and live their lives according to religious doctrine. One local, Sympathy Gibbs, is unhappily married to Daniel Gibbs, a fisherman. When the same storm that washes Yen Sin ashore takes her husband’s life, Sympathy becomes the focus of Nate Snow, the town Midas. We are shown his secret longing, but we are not quite sure of his intentions. Enter the Reverend John Malden (Harrison Ford… same name, but not Indiana Jones!) A new resident in Urkey, he takes an immediate fancy to Sympathy, much to the dismay of Snow. Soon, Malden and Gibbs are wed. They have a daughter together, but in their moment of domestic bliss, Malden comes across a terrible revelation. Unable to reconcile the discovery with his clerical inclinations, Malden risks sacrificing his marriage and fatherhood so that he might come to grips with a potentially life-altering choice. Through it all, Yen Sin quietly observes, absorbs and, ultimately, absolves. By the end, Yen Sin’s and Malden’s life paths collide, testing each man’s notions of compassion and forgiveness.

The first thing that comes to mind watching both these films are that how radically different one is from the other. Both deal with matters of faith, but the similarity ends there. I would consider "Outside the Law" the more modern of the two films. Rather "talk" heavy for a silent (it felt like every other cut was a title card), the interplay between characters, the plot exposition and moments in-between all scream for a synchronized dialogue track. The film does contain sporadic sound effects like gun shots, windows crashing, and furniture smashing. Given the film’s 1920-release date, these aural enrichments would have been added later, as well as the orchestral score accompanying it. Even between two roles, Chaney’s presence in "Outside" is measured but concentrated. With his features exaggerated but not totally altered, Chaney’s Sylva is a vicious thug, not at all polished or remotely civilized. Ah Wing, on the other hand, is almost a complete cipher, barely intervening in the plot. Other than offering Chaney in make-up as a marketing tactic, the role could have been completely written out of the film.

"Shadows," on the other hand, wears its god-fearing righteousness prominently on its sleeve. The conscience of the film is meant to be Malden, with his responsibilities torn between father, husband and pastor. At one point in the story, Malden refers to fears as "shadows" (hence the title). Reading it from a modern perspective, I think it goes deeper than that. Shadows give depth. Without them, we are but two-dimensional. Malden is pious, but yearns for a normal domestic life. Snow at first appears religious, but harbors decidedly impure motives. At times, Yen Sin is victim to cruelty by both adults and children; in other instances, his presence is barely acknowledged. Yet his unshakable demeanor provides not only a moral anchor for Malden, but also affects the townspeople. When one kid viciously taunts him, an act of kindness allows the child to befriend Yen Sin. The result is that, at a crucial moment, the boy defends Yin Sin. For all the film’s moralizing from the Christian perspective, Yen Sin represents the light needed to create said shadows, even if the narrative’s emphasis on Malden and Sympathy suggests otherwise.

The video transfers for these films are exemplary, given the ages and conditions of the sources. "Shadows" is in sepia-tone, while "Outside" is more of the traditional gray scale that we associate with black and white photography. Both films range from crisp, clear renderings to softly focused images. Varying between both titles, black levels are sufficient enough for adequate shadow definition and detail delineation. Of the two, "Shadows" looks in better shape. While "Outside" contains more moments of greater clarity and sharpness of image, the source materials are wracked with nitrate deterioration; the action lost between what looks like water damage and bubbled celluloid. This is not meant as a criticism of the transfers; rather, this is yet another salvo in the cry for preserving our celluloid past.

The audio options on the DVD range from the synchronized orchestral track in "Outside" to the organ score performed by the venerable Gaylord Carter for "Shadows." In both cases, the audio is presented in clear, non-distorted <$DD,Dolby Digital> mono. The score for "Outside" seems at times a tad comical, given the seriousness of the accompanying images. The score for "Shadows" carries just the right blend of mood and emotion, despite glimpses of "chopsticks" style music when Yen Sin is on screen. Personally, I prefer watching silent films to organ accompaniment, as opposed to traditional orchestral music. Somehow, the stern tonalities of the organ perfectly complement the exaggerated visions of silent film.

No extras are provided with this disc. Other than a still library or perhaps a <$commentary,commentary track> by Chaney historian Michael F. Blake, I can’t imagine that too many extras would exist for this kind of DVD programming.

In actuality, Lon Chaney’s press monicker of "The Man of a Thousand Faces " reached far beyond his mastery of putty and spirit gum. He was as modern as any of the great actors of the 20th Century. Thanks to the fine efforts of Image Entertainment, the body of evidence available for making that statement has grown by two.