"Crying won't help, talking might."
The Penalty (1920) *****
dir. Wallace Worsley
Starring: Lon Chaney, Claire Adams, Charles Clary, Ethel Grey Terry
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Imagine the horror.
One day you're a happy-go-lucky kid from a well-to-do San Francisco family and the next you wake up from an anesthetic-induced slumber to discover you've been transformed into a deformed, legless freak. This is what they call a living nightmare - one that will last the rest of your life. Even worse, you overhear the senior surgeon chastising the junior surgeon for accidentally performing unnecessary amputations.
"Good God, you should not have operated," the senior doctor says to the flabbergasted young surgeon. "You've mangled this child for life."
Now you know for sure.
Your legs could and indeed SHOULD have been spared.
What happens to you, now?
Many years later, far from the hearth of your family's home, you live amidst the squalor of seedy bars and whorehouses within a radius of several city blocks, the notorious Pacific Avenue leading directly from the waterfront to provide a myriad of opportunities for sailors and dock workers to engage in all manner of sinful and sordid activities. However, unlike the shady denizens of the Barbary Coast you now call home, you wear only the finest tailored clothes and in spite of the knurled stumps below your thighs, jammed into a pair of steel legs, you've clearly acquired considerable power and respect - even though it's amongst the scum of the Earth.
Your name is now Blizzard (Lon Chaney) and you're hellbent on both revenge and masterminding a massive criminal coup to bring the City of San Francisco to its knees. You're one mean, downright reprehensible son of a bitch. Every woman you cast your eyes upon, no matter what their station, become your whore and anyone - ANYONE!!! - who dares cross you or fuck you up will die.
|"Laughter burns a cripple like acid."|
Sumptuously shot and cut with a blistering pace, it's not only a movie that knocks you on your duff, chills you to the bone and at times, totally creeps you out, but is infused with elements of tragedy that even move you. Though Blizzard is one of the most foul creatures put on celluloid, the astonishing performance by Lon Chaney, Worsley's terse, brilliant direction and a screenplay that takes one unpredictable turn after another ultimately yields a picture that manages to rip humanity out of the soul of its main character.
While you're not necessarily rooting for him, you come to recognize elements of redemption dangling in front of him and you're riveted by the hope (against hope) that he'll grab one of the olive branches extended by the universe to lift him out of the grime to remove even one or two black spots on his tortured soul.
And what a tortured soul Chaney creates. When a young artist seeks the ultimate model for a sculpture of "Satan After The Fall", she takes one look at Blizzard's mug with its horrendous sneer and eyes radiating a mixture of hatred and agony, and knows instantly, he's the one.
She sees him as a "model". We, however, have already seen several instances of Blizzard conducting himself with Satanic gusto during the perpetration of cruel and criminal actions. In fact, his treatment of a woman who betrays him, but realizes too late that she loves him is akin to a psychologically abusive pulling the wings off a fly until finally, he warns his slaves (yes, slaves!) that she "now sleeps on a marble slab".
Chaney as Blizzard is no mere movie villain. He infuses the role with pure, unadulterated evil and hatred. He's beyond bad, beyond creepy, beyond villainous - he's fucking scary. And finally, what makes him scary is the humanity he pulls from the depths of the character.
When Blizzard declares that "Laughter burns a cripple like acid," we're alternately moved and horrified. We dare not doubt for a second that he's been the target of endless derision and at the same time, we know what lengths he'll go to in order to avenge the butchery perpetrated upon him - first with the literal butcher and then with the whole world.
Murderer, thief, pimp and white slaver. Blizzard's body is not only twisted, so is his soul.
And the sheer physicality of the role is a marvel to behold. We have no doubt Blizzard is legless. Chaney clearly underwent endless pain to keep both legs tucked and burrowed deep into the steel legs. Every move, every breath and every step he takes seems genuinely wracked with utter agony. Even more tragic are the very few moments where Chaney's eyes reveal brief sadness, regret and yes, even a deep-seeded tenderness that creeps out from within his soul.
Chaney really was a great actor and he had so much to offer in film after film. For me, he truly is one of the actors who defines the very notion of what it is to deliver a full-on, full-blown screen performance. Known as the "Man of a Thousand Faces", Chaney used his astounding prowess with makeup effects to apply physical manifestations to his "look" for every role so he could go a few steps further to embody whatever character he played.
The Penalty is a bonafide classic of cinema. The picture is so riveting and skilfully wrought that at times, it's hard to fathom that the movie is over 90-years-old. Though the film is silent (this should be enough to betray its age), the expert storytelling, the crazily inspired writing and Worsley's superb direction all conspire to render a picture that feels far ahead of its time.
So much of this feeling comes from Chaney himself.
The camera loved him.
More importantly, Chaney loved the camera.
"The Penalty" is available on Kino-Lorber. Mastered in HD from a 35mm restoration by the George Eastman House Motion Picture Department and featuring an astounding new musical score by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, this is a Blu-Ray to cherish. It also includes surviving footage of Chaney's now-lost "The Miracle Man". "By the Sun's Rays", a very cool 1914 one-reel western with Chaney as an unlikely thief is on the disc as well as vintage original trailers from "The Big City" and "While The City Sleeps". Feel free to order the film from the handy links below. Great prices and you'll also be supporting the maintenance of this site if you do so.