Friday, October 17, 2014

Outside the Law (1930)

Edward G. Robinson stars in this tough pre-code crime drama -- directed by Tod Browning -- about a crook and his girlfriend who double-cross a local crime boss when they attempt to pull off a high-stakes bank heist in his territory at Christmas. A remake of Browning's 1921 silent film of the same name, this was his second talkie, and his first in a three-picture deal with Universal (the story -- by Browning and Garrett Fort -- would be filmed for a third time, also at Universal, in 1946 under the title INSIDE JOB).

It's interesting to see Robinson playing a gangster a year before his breakout performance in LITTLE CAESAR, and indeed, his "Cobra" Collins here seems like a prototype of Rico Bandello, especially with his distinctive delivery of gangland slang. Robinson is always a delight to watch, as he struts around like a rooster with his cocksure posturing, looking impeccably stylish and puffing on a cigar. It's easy to see the qualities here that brought him to the attention of Warner Bros. and would make him a star. Robinson is one of those actors for whom the sound film medium seemed to be invented; like Cagney, he's endlessly fascinating in how he uses his voice and body in subtle but highly expressive ways, and that is evident even in this early role, where he commands attention every time he is on screen.

Unfortunately, things get deadly dull when he is off-screen, especially in the second half which spends long stretches of time with bickering crooks Mary Nolan and Owen Moore, neither of whom seem particularly at ease in their roles. The plot drags interminably through their scenes together, taking place in a single, claustrophobic apartment set, only picking up a bit at the end during their final confrontation with Cobra, but by this point any tension in the drama has fizzled, and the ending is dramatically unsatisfying as a result.

Still, it's nicely shot by Roy Overbaugh, with some effective high-contrast lighting in the bank heist scenes, and filled with some of Browning's trademark flourishes, especially his emphasis on certain props to reveal character details, and his affinity with sideshows and dime museums (in the form of a bizarre "living art" exhibit). Browning's talkies are frustrating experiences because they are largely stagy, static affairs, yet often contain tantalizing traces of his distinctive visual style that made his silent films so interesting even when the plots were absurd. This one is no exception, but it makes an interesting counterpart to his earlier filming of the same story.

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