The 17 Most Underrated Crime Films of the 1920s

The end of the silent era saw its fair share of crime-and some of the best crime films!
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The 1920s were, undoubtedly, an incredible year for crime films, in part because this decade saw the end of the silent era and the rise of talkies: there’s a delightful mix, here, of films from both styles of cinema, and some of the great masterpieces of the genre (many long forgotten by the average movie audience of today) exist right here, suspended in time.

Many of the actors and directors who would go on to become household names in the 1930s and 1940s got their start right here, and many of those who were the darlings of the silent-era screen saw this as their final hurrah before the talkies wiped their stardom off the map.

Once upon a time, Netflix’s DVD library hosted well over 100,000 titles and sent out roughly 12 million DVDs per week. Now, with the advent of easy-to-use streaming services, the amount of content viewers have available has shrunk to the low thousands. Look up any list of “films to watch” and you’ll find a tiny selection of movies, usually curated by people all reading the same lists and commenting on the exact same hot new show or film.

But, is that all there is? With over a hundred years of incredible filmmaking on the planet, isn’t there something missed when we only pay attention to the latest and greatest? This series is dedicated to answering that question and to exploring a small handful of the unsung films from decades past. I’ll examine each decade in turn, all the way back to the earliest days of film, and I’ll be exploring every genre of film there is! From science fiction, to drama, to romance, to comedy—I’m going to cover the entirety of film history for you, bringing out the golden nuggets for you to enjoy.

As always, with these articles, I love hearing your feedback in the comments section, or on Twitter @indubitablyodin. Let me know what your favorite films of the decade were, which ones you think I should have included, and which you hope I’ll mention in one of my next decades!

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By the Law (1926)
By the Law (1926)
Director Actors
Lev Kuleshov Aleksandra Khokhlova

Based on the Jack London short stories "The Unexpected" (1905), and "Just Meat" (1906), this is the tale of a small group of gold prospectors trapped by winter in the Yukon. When one of their number commits an unforgivable crime, the others must decide: do they mete out sharp justice then and there, or try to survive together until the summer thaw?

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By the Law (1926)

By the Law (1926) was low-budget as they come, green-lit by the studio only after a local Moscow newspaper ran an article in support of its production.

Piccadilly (1929)
Piccadilly (1929)
Director Actors
E.A. Dupont Gilda Gray, Anna May Wong, Jameson Thomas

A nightclub on the verge of disaster, a tale of love and lust, and betrayal; a roaring dramatic train ride toward the most devilish and dastardly of crimes! They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

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Piccadilly (1929)

Piccadilly (1929) is, as British Film Institute Curator Mark Duguid said, “a film noir before the term was in use.” It captures something vibrant and dark, its web of intrigue elevated by superb directing and cinematography. Released right on the cusp of “talkies,” it retains silence whilst using sound to great effect.

A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)
A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)
Director Actors
Anthony Asquith Norah Baring, Uno Henning

A love triangle leads to cutting blows and incarceration for one haunted young man. A tale of revenge, passion, that asks what redemption means.

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A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)

A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) is a masterwork film at the final days of the silent era, offering a view into the deeper merits of British cinema of the era than many might be aware.

Beggars of Life (1928)
Beggars of Life (1928)
Director Actors
William A. Wellman Wallace Beery, Louise Brooks, Richard Arlen

A young woman on the run from the law takes shelter in a man’s guise and flees into the world of the “hobo”. Living on the street, she finds people who might be her saving grace, or her downfall.

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Beggars of Life (1928)

Beggars of Life (1928) features the incomparable Louise Brooks, flapper heartthrob and 1930s head-turning icon, in what is probably her absolute best role. A must-see. There were originally two versions of the film, a silent version and a version featuring music and singing. Sadly, the sound version is considered lost.

Variety (1925)
Variety (1925)
Director Actors
Ewald Andre Dupont Emil Jannings, Lya de Putt, Maly Delschaft

A former trapeze artist who will never swing again, his beautiful young wife, and the strange and compelling sideshow dancer who threatens the stability of it all.

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Variety (1925)

Variety (1925) was heavily censored for its American release, with the entire first reel cut from the film. This removes a massive point of backstory, as well as the main motivations for the events of the film — but those who censor never seem to care about the merits of art.

The Unholy Three (1925)
The Unholy Three (1925)
Director Actors
Tod Browning Lon Chaney

Three performers hatch a dastardly plot to get rich by scamming the rich and stealing from them, but when things heat up and the crimes get more violent, love and fear threaten to pull the trio down into a hellish dive.

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The Unholy Three (1925)

The Unholy Three (1925) remade five years later as a silent film (in which Lon Chaney once again starred), this original silent film is definitely less-well known. It is, however, superb, and undoubtedly deserves a watch.

The Penalty (1920)
The Penalty (1920)
Director Actors
Wallace Worsley Lon Chaney

A lifelong lust for revenge leads one crippled man to become the most powerful criminal in San Francisco’s old Barbary Coast district. But even as he enacts his careful plot for revenge, love might prove to be his downfall.

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The Penalty (1920)

The Penalty (1920) was a proper “Red-Scare” film that occurred during the initial height of the fear of Communist uprisings that seemed imminent around the world. Ridiculous politics aside, it’s a great crime/revenge film, and Lon Chaney is as superb as always.

Chaney simulated being a real amputee by wearing incredibly painful false stumps with his legs tied back, against the wishes of the doctors employed by the studio.

Underworld (1927)
Underworld (1927)
Director Actors
Josef von Sternberg Clive Brook, Evelyn Brent, and George Bancroft

A down-and-out lawyer nicknamed “Rolls Royce” gets roped into a boisterous gangster’s schemes. But, when he falls for the kingpin’s girlfriend, and with another local gangster itching for a gang war, Rolls Royce finds his new career path anything but simple.

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Underworld (1927)

Underworld (1927) came just following a low point in director Josef von Sternberg’s career. Paramount expected the film to fail and, as if to ensure this outcome, released it initially in just one theater. The response was so overwhelming supportive, however, that they staged multiple daily performances at the massive Paramount Theatre movie palace to “accommodate the unexpected crowds that flocked to the attraction.”

Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922)
Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922)
Director Actors
Fritz Lang Rudolf Klein-Rogge

Dr. Mabuse is the ultimate criminal: a learned psychologist, a manipulator armed with hypnosis, and a master of disguise, his plots are as vast as they are twisted.

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Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922)

Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922) is no quick watch, at over four and a half hours long across its two parts. It is, however, a masterpiece of the silent era, one of the true greats and a must-see film for fans of the era and fans of the crime genre in general.

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)
The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)
Director Actors
Alfred Hitchcock June Tripp

A serial killer is stalking young blond women, leading to mass public hysteria. When a young man calls at a room for let, and ends up romancing the young daughter of the house, several—including her police officer sweetheart, begin to suspect him of being the murderer-at-large.

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The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927) was only Hitchcock’s third feature film, but in it all his later brilliance can already be seen in full. His mastery in the era of sound pictures is no less in the era of the silents, and, indeed, the silence plays to his strengths with blocking and the use of carefully composed scenes.

The Flying Scotsman (1929)
The Flying Scotsman (1929)
Director Actors
Castleton Knight Pauline Johnson, Ray Milland

A fast-paced race to stop one disgruntled man from fulfilling his desire for revenge — a plot that could lead to the deaths of dozens or more innocents.

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The Flying Scotsman (1929)

The Flying Scotsman (1929) is simplistic in terms of plot, but the stunts are all real, performed aboard the famous titular train. For those alone, it’s worth watching.

Dressed to Kill (1928)
Dressed to Kill (1928)
Director Actors
Irving Cummings Mary Astor

A mob-boss’s new girlfriend seems too good to be true. Could she be a police plant, or is she a “groupie” with a thing for the wrong side of the law?

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Dressed to Kill (1928)

Dressed to Kill (1928) is a lighthearted fare with an early hint of the later noir genre, a perfect companion piece to some of the darker mob films of the era. Truly, Mary Astor shines in this role.

Lights of New York (1928)
Lights of New York (1928)
Director Actors
Bryan Foy Helene Costello, Cullen Landis, Wheeler Oakman, and Eugene Pallette

Two notorious bootleggers return to New York, convincing a naive country kid and his friend to join them and set up a barbershop. But when the shop proves to be just a front for a speakeasy, things start to get complicated, and lives and loves are threatened by the villainous criminals-at-large.

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Lights of New York (1928)

Lights of New York (1928) was the very first Warner Bros. Film to be released as a feature-length “full sound” film, with synchronized talking. It was one of the first films to strike big in the era of the talkies, showcasing the transition from the dominance of the silent era.

White Tiger (1923)
White Tiger (1923)
Director Actors
Tod Browning Priscilla Dean and Wallace Beery

A former magician and his accomplices stage an exhibition of “The Mechanical Turk” (a famous chess-playing false-automaton) to gain entry to a wealthy estate in order to conduct an elaborate jewel heist.

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White Tiger (1923)

White Tiger (1923) is not the most complex and daring of the films of the era, but it's representative of a lot of the moral feel that was surging in response to mainstream youth culture and other countercultures of the time. In many ways, its overt moralizing heralds the coming of the restrictive Hays Code era.

Outside the Law (1920)
Outside the Law (1920)
Director Actors
Tod Browning Priscilla Dean, Lon Chaney, and Wheeler Oakman

A Confucianist philosopher in San Francisco’s Chinatown convinces a criminal boss and his gangster daughter to give up their life of crime, but the dark underworld is no easy place to escape from, and sometimes bullets are required.

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Outside the Law (1920)

Outside the Law (1920) is considered one of the early greats of the gangster film genre, a psychologically-driven piece that offers a truly compelling female lead that is quite unlike many of the era, as well as positive-Chinese role model characters, something of a rarity in this frankly quite racist era.

The Locked Door (1929)
The Locked Door (1929)
Director Actors
George Fitzmaurice Rod LaRocque, Barbara Stanwyck, William "Stage" Boyd, and Betty Bronson

Ann Carter thinks she’s in love, but when the man she accompanies to a boat party turns out to be a violent would-be rapist, things turn foul. Years later, her encounter with him returns to haunt her, and she becomes embroiled in a situation that could ruin her new life and land her husband in jail for murder!

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The Locked Door (1929)

The Locked Door (1929) is based on a stage play, and in many ways the play far exceeds the film—however, there are some powerful moments here, and plenty to love in this simple, yet classic, crime film.

The Power of the Press (1928)
The Power of the Press (1928)
Director Actors
Frank Capra Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

A reporter desperate for a scoop manages to implicate an innocent young woman in a murder, and, desperate to prove her innocence, sets out himself to catch the real killer.

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The Power of the Press (1928)

The Power of the Press (1928) is fast-paced, light, and delightfully fun. It’s one of Fairbanks’ earliest films (he was just eighteen here) but his charisma, and the snappy writing, make up for his still-young acting chops. Overall, a blast from the past.

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