Updated: Apr 19, 2019
What turns a young man into a criminal? How about having both his legs amputated above the knee, then overhearing his doctors say they shouldn't have done it? Maybe, maybe not; but how about telling his parents what he heard and having them believe he was merely hallucinating due to the anesthesia? Being "mangled for life" and dealt a severe mental blow… that does it for Lon Chaney in The Penalty (1920).
27 years after this horrifying event, Blizzard (Chaney) is lord and master of the underworld in San Francisco's "one hideous blemish," the Barbary Coast. Lichtenstein (Milton Ross), a Federal agent, assigns his best operative, Rose (Ethel Grey Terry) to infiltrate Blizzard's operation to learn why his dance hall girls are making straws hats on the side. He wants to reach the criminal mastermind through his "slaves."
After only one week, Rose is successful in her mission, becoming Blizzard's confidant. He's a terrific piano player, but of course, cannot use the foot pedals, so Rose sits on the floor and does it for him "to his pleasure and satisfaction." "You're a find!" he exclaims. Meanwhile, he accepts a gig posing for aspiring sculptor Barbara Ferris (Claire Adams), daughter of the man who cut off his legs, with revenge in mind.
The Penalty is a good example of what you often read about Chaney and the extent to which he would go to transform himself into hideous, misshapen characters. The facial transformation is not demonstrated here like it would be in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) or The Phantom of the Opera (1925), but what he does below the waist is fascinating and cringe-worthy. Assuming he has his lower legs bent and strapped tightly behind his upper legs, it's amazing the acrobatics that Chaney performs.
First, he hops onto a table in the hat shop and walks down it, in the space where the women are working. Then, he jumps onto his apartment wall to grab pegs that he climbs to peer down on them from a small window above. We can further assume that he channels what must be painful movements into his characterization of an evil man. He's so evil that the sculpture for which he's posing is of Satan himself.
As with most silent films, I'm never sure how closely the experience of watching them today represents the experience of watching them during their original presentations. Therefore, a review must include a disclaimer about the former. The print I watched on Shudder was beautiful, barely showing its age. It uses color tints for its various settings and locations: Blizzard's apartment is brown, the shop is gray and Barbara's studio is purple.
For a silent film, The Penalty has some great dialogue. Blizzard tells Barbara's suitor (Kenneth Harlan), "What an admirable pair of legs. I gave mine to science." Later, as part of his endgame, he tells him more specifically, "You must hand over to me your superb legs." Then, during the climax, where the villain approaches redemption, Blizzard states, "Fate chained me to evil. For that, I must pay the penalty" and "Don't grieve dear. Death interests me."
There are some twists and turns late in the film as the subject matter approaches the horror (and almost science fiction) genre. However, The Penalty remains firmly rooted in the style of a crime thriller. It moves along at a nice pace and is entertaining throughout its 90-minute running time. I will admit that, immediately after watching it, I felt neutral about it. Ruminating on it now, though, I consider it required viewing.
Written by Gouverneur Morris, adapted from his famous novel Directed by Wallace Worsley Starring Lon Chaney, Charles Clary, Doris Pawn, Jim Mason, Milton Ross, Ethel Grey Terry, Kenneth Harlan, Claire Adams US Release Aug. 8, 1920 (Detroit) RT 90 min. Home Video Kino International
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