I was scratching my head in bafflement watching ‘Outside the Law’ (1956) last night and not because of any impenetrable plot intricacies or convoluted narrative twists but simply at how much I was enjoying the bloody thing. After all, this is a noir that’s somewhat lightweight, reveals nothing about the human condition, contains zero biting social commentary, is about as rugged and gritty as a meringue and doesn’t initially appear to be exerting itself to impress us visually on any level whatsoever, and don’t we need — nay, DEMAND! — all that in a noir? So why is this fluff so much fun? Well, it wasn’t until afterwards I realised it was directed by Jack Arnold, the guy who’d made ‘Creature From the Black Lagoon’ (1954), ‘It Came From Outer Space’ (1953) and ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ (1957). Ah, NOW it all begins to make sense.
Johnny Salvo (what a fantastic name!), played by Ray Danton, is an ex-juvenile delinquent paroled into the army who is offered a clean slate by the Government if he agrees to comeback stateside and help bust the international counterfeiting ring responsible for murdering his old army buddy. The authorities believe Salvo can use this connection to his dead friend to get close to his widow, Maria (Leigh Snowdon), as it appears her husband was somehow involved in this criminal organisation so she might let slip a thing or two.
Not that this will be smooth sailing as it turns out the Chief Agent leading this investigation is also Salvo’s estranged father (Onslow Stevens) and not only that but Maria has a suitor, Don (Grant Williams), and this guy who doesn’t approve of Salvo hanging round his squeeze. Yet is this sexual jealousy or is there a more nefarious reason this mysterious Don dude doesn’t want Salvo sniffing around?
As you can tell there’s nothing outstandingly original going on here and if you suspect you’d be able to accurately predict where all this is going you’d be totally correct but director Arnold, his cast plus a nicely written script make watching the inevitable unfold incredibly appealing.
Every line of dialogue, every performance gesture, every piece of visual information always pushes events forward meaning the film has a decent sense of pace and effortlessly hooks the attention, and whilst Arnold’s direction might not be brazenly flashy he does an excellent job of keeping everything moving. He’s particularly good at placing little bits of animated business in the background such as when Salvo first appears at Maria’s front door one evening and, across the street, we see a housewife in a home opposite casually closing her curtains. It’s a tiny, almost insignificant touch but it really injects a sense of life and motion to it all and keeps everything visually perky.
The cast’s engaging performances also help with Onslow Stevens especially having some great moments as Salvo’s bossy yet ultimately protective and loving father and his agents, all of whom appear to be enjoying themselves immensely, get some crackers of lines to play around with. It’s also quite sweet that Salvo himself, despite his ridiculously macho name, isn’t a complete asshole.
Scriptwriter Danny Arnold would go on to write for ‘Bewitched’ and Jack Arnold himself would later direct episodes of ‘The Brady Bunch’ and I think this possibly explains why there isn’t a shred of nihilism to be found anywhere within this movie. This isn’t a hard-hitting noir that’s an auteur driven piece of experimental iconoclasm but, instead, a professionally and efficiently well-made piece of entertainment as post-war reassurance, and there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of that sometimes.