Above all else, the best reason I can think of for adopting a historically-oriented approach to art appreciation is that there's so damn much history just sitting there. Limit yourself to only the stuff produced in any given year, and you're going to make some discoveries and have a great deal of random dross to get through; but open yourself up to years and decades and centuries (depending on exactly which art we're talking about), and suddenly you have piles and piles of unknown treasures to stumble across.

I bring this up in connection with the 1920 Universal gangster film Outside the Law because it was almost completely by accident that I watched it for this series: I'd made a horrible mistake in building my schedule, and found myself anxious to find literally any 1920 film from a Hollywood studio that could be gotten in less than an hour on the internet. Which is how I ended up with a film typically cited nowadays as being interesting mostly for being the second of ten collaborations between director Tod Browning and rightfully legendary character actor Lon Chaney, following 1919's The Wicked Darling. And my thanks to the Internet Archive for being there in my hour of need.

But it's not Lon Chaney's film - he's the villain and absent for a huge chunk of the middle. It is instead primarily a vehicle for Universal's biggest and brightest female star of the late '10s and '20s, Priscilla Dean, about whom I knew literally nothing at all before stumbling unto what is not, apparently, a specifically important or meaningful entry in her canon. And so I return to my first point, stumbling across hidden treasures: not just Outside the Law, which is an odd and rewarding little gangster picture that isn't, in and of itself, a real contender for Great Forgotten Classic status, but Dean herself, a galvanising actor whose work in this film isn't always as perfect as it might be, with some distinctly B-grade silent mugging in places where it especially hurts, but who grabs the camera in every frame where she appears and refuses to let go of it, giving a performance that I can honestly and without hyperbole say isn't exactly like anything else I've ever seen in a silent film.

Dean plays Molly Madden, the daughter of one of the most important gang leaders in San Francisco, Silent Madden (Ralph Lewis). As the film begins, Silent has been spending a great deal of time with local Chinese community leader and Confucian scholar Chang Lo (E. Alyn Warren), who has been impressing upon the gangster lessons in eschewing violence and crime to live a moral, good life, and to lead by example. Molly thinks this is all so much loopy twaddle, but part of her is genuinely moved by her dad's shift in attitude; a less charitable interpretation is held by Black Mike Sylva (Chaney), a particularly cruel-minded criminal who decides that Silent Madden's newfound generosity of spirit makes him an easy target to frame for murder.

Seeing her father sent to prison for a crime he didn't commit is enough to turn Molly off of the path of peace and love but good, and she immediately works on a plan to get back at Sylva. Working with Dapper Bill Ballard (Wheeler Oakman, Dean's husband at the time), Molly concocts a plan to steal a massive clutch of jewels with Sylva, double-crossing him and going into hiding to let the cops hunt him down. This leaves Molly and Bill trapped for weeks in a small apartment with nobody but a little boy (Stanley Goethals) from across the hall for company. And you know what happens to two people stuck in each other's company for weeks at a time, especially when the lady doesn't bother to telegraph her disdain for her male companion, right? It happens here, too. But the main thrust of the plot concerns Bill being turned by the tow-headed little child that keeps poking his head in all the time, and he immediately sets himself to the task of convincing Molly that they need to go straight, return the jewels, and give up her angry quest for revenge against Sylva.

Outside the Law turns out to be a weirdly psychological thing, far less concerned with the doings of gangsters than with portraying the effects of cabin fever (in its current form, at least. Only one print is known - the last two reels are in pretty bad shape, too - and it is from a 1926 re-release that allegedly cut a great deal of content out). Browning and cinematographer William Fildew's visual treatment of the apartment where Molly and Bill are holed up is emphatic and cramped, using much closer compositions than anywhere else in the film to stress not just the closeness of the two protagonists, but even more the maddening sameness of the space in which they're stuck. The door that is the single outlet to the world now closed off to the characters is at the center of several of the most dynamic, deep compositions in the film (one outstanding shot of Sylva standing just outside the door anticipates Browning's evolution into a thriller and horror specialist, something this film resolutely is not). It's surprisingly modernist of the film to spend so much time flaunting the expectations of the gangster genre, by not merely avoiding action but openly bragging about how much not-action is taking place; even more so since Browning's focus is on making the apartment seem crushing and tedious, rather than playing around with more kinetic, diverting stagings that would make the film more superficially watchable but sacrifice its meat.

Anyway, back to Dean, who does something quite fascinating and extraordinary: she foregrounds, at all moments, the action of thought. Molly is a strategist first and foremost, and Dean emphasises this above all things, with expressions and sideways glances that reveal multi-layered calculation and precision in when smirk, when to frown, when to go blank, that feel not like choices the actor is making but choices the character herself is making, in what amounts to a film-long performance for the benefit of everyone else in the cast. And in so doing, Dean is surprisingly, and excitingly willing to make herself unappealing: visually, on the one hand, since many of her furrowed brows and expressions are nobody's idea of traditional movie star beauty, and those traditions extend back as far as the first women to appear in one-shot novelties in the 1890s. On the other hand, she's whole-heartedly committed to letting herself be unappealing ethically, playing a truly hard, mercenary criminal to Oakman's forgettably soft-edged Bill, snapping and sulking and making cutting gestures and remarks with so much focus that you can hear the sarcasm in her voice even through the lack of a soundtrack. She's unable to do anything with the sudden moment in Browning's story where Molly decides on very little pretext to start being nice to the kid; but I do not claim for Dean the merit of being a flawless, or even a great actress. She's something better: a hypnotising, dominating screen personality.

It's lucky for the film that when Dean isn't onscreen, Chaney usually is, since those two are by and large the only humans in Outside the Law that give it any kind of spice. Chaney plays two roles: he has a small amount of screentime as Ah Wing, a follower of Chang Lo, notable mostly for how thoroughly unrecognisable the actor is under his yellowface makeup, either as himself or as anyone we might willingly call Chinese. But no matter: the plain Chaney face of Sylva is a special effect all its own, with the actor playing a truly nasty piece of work of idle competence and cunning, a villain who smiles wearily at his prey with the satisfaction of somebody who never expected that failure was ever on the table. It's a great performance from a perpetually under-appreciated actor, menacing as hell without being in the lest bit florid or melodramatic.

Beyond those two, honestly, Outside the Law has nothing of particular note to recommend itself: the surprise of a 1920 American movie whose Chinese characters are uniformly heroic - indeed, the most obviously moral and decent people in the movie - is offset by how many of them are played by white people (though Anna May Wong, at the very start of her career, pops up in a single shot that puts her front and center). Browning's attempts to create an atmosphere of foreboding by underlighting the city streets and criminal dens where most of the first and last acts take place doesn't work remotely as well as it would in his films later in the '20s, as he committed more thoroughly to horror (or, at any rate, the thing that horror was in that decade in America). The atmosphere is there, yes, but it feels plastered atop the film rather than drawn up through the film, and the film is never better than when it takes place in the well-lit, clear interiors of that cramped apartment.

Not a masterpiece, then; just a good delivery system for a pair of actors doing some very interesting things to look at. Still, there's enough going on here that I can't really compare to anything else I know from the same period that the film registers, strongly, as a worthy curiosity.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1920
-Buster Keaton appears in his first solo feature, The Saphead, and short, One Week
-John Barrymore stars as the title characters of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde
-Douglas Fairbanks stars in the genre-defying swashbuckler The Mark of Zorro

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1920
-Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the major films of German Expressionism
-Carl Theodor Dreyer makes The Parson's Widow in Sweden, his first major film
-The Kelly Gang, a remake of the first known feature-length film, is released in Australia