(1920) Directed by Wallace Worsley; Written by Charles Kenyon; Based on the novel The Penalty, by Gouverneur Morris; Starring: Lon Chaney, Ethel Grey Terry, Claire Adams, Charles Clary, Doris Pawn and Jim Mason; Available on DVD
Rating: *** ½
“When Satan fell from Heaven, he looked for power in Hell.” – Blizzard
Silent films are an ethereal window into another time and place. They possess a sense of unreality that at once distances and tantalizes us. Whenever I sit down to watch a silent movie, I feel privileged to observe a brief glimpse of a world gone by. What was once regarded as a disposable medium is now available for posterity, for future generations to enjoy. When I learned about Eternity of Dream’s Speechless Blogathon, I saw another opportunity to explore a medium that never fails to captivate me. The Penalty is just such a film – a gloriously imperfect reflection of the time when it was created; not just a moldy artifact, but a living artifice.
In the opening scene we see a young Dr. Ferris and his mentor as they discuss emergency surgery that was performed on a young boy who was the victim of a traffic accident. The elder doctor chastises him for unnecessarily amputating both of the boy’s legs above the knee, then agrees to conceal the mistake from the boy’s parents. Unfortunately for Dr. Ferris, the seeds of revenge have been planted, as the anguished boy overhears the doctors’ conversation. The story shifts 27 years later to (then) modern-day San Francisco.
The boy has grown into a ruthless underworld kingpin known as Blizzard (Lon Chaney). Despite his affliction, he builds a citywide crime syndicate that demands absolute fealty from his allies and intimidation of his enemies. Chaney used an elaborate, painful, harness to conceal his lower legs, and walked on his knees to create the illusion that he was a double amputee. The effect was so convincing to audiences of the 1920s that The Penalty once included a final scene (now lost) depicting Chaney walking around on his full legs. But Chaney succeeds as Blizzard not only because of the physical demands of the role, but his expressive portrayal of a man consumed by his lust for power. He carefully sets the elements of revenge in place like a spider casting an elaborate web. Once his plans have come to fruition, he vows to rule the city “…with the pleasures of a Nero and powers of a Caesar.” Fittingly, he poses for a bust of Satan by Barbara Ferris (Claire Adams), none other than the daughter of the doctor who maimed him. Blizzard knows that she’s the key to his plan in exacting his vengeance on her father.
Blizzard finds his nemesis and muse in the guise of Rose (Ethel Grey Terry), a secret agent tasked with exposing his underworld operation. She goes undercover as one of the women working in his hat-making sweatshop, but soon finds that his business activities are much more ambitious. Even after he discovers her true intent, he decides to keep her under his wing instead of dispatching her. His uncustomary display of mercy demonstrates his growing ambivalence toward her, with equal measures of admiration and betrayal.
The Penalty contains some surprising pre-code content, with sexual innuendos, depictions of a brothel, and a nude sculptor’s model. Blizzard’s bizarre relationship with Rose is rife with thinly veiled sexual tension. He enjoys the fact that Rose is held captive for his amusement; she pushes the pedals on his piano as he fingers the keys.
It’s practically impossible to observe The Penalty detached from a modern perspective. The film’s myriad plot holes are readily apparent: Why weren’t Rose’s notes of her covert activity encrypted to prevent Blizzard and his men from uncovering her secret identity? Why did she choose to sign the notes with her own name? Why would Blizzard trust Dr. Ferris to perform surgery correctly on him after Barbara is held hostage? And the big plot twist that’s revealed at the film’s climax seems particularly contrived, even by M. Night Shyamalan’s standards.
I would have preferred a simpler approach to the music that accompanies the Kino DVD. Michael Polher’s modern, synthesized score seems a little too strident and anachronistic, providing unneeded distraction when subtle cues would have been more effective. I appreciated the attempt to do something different, but there were times when the scenes required a more restrained touch.
All quibbles aside, Chaney’s remarkable performance makes The Penalty a worthwhile viewing experience. His physicality and emotional depth are never short of compelling. Another notable aspect is the way that several scenes are juxtaposed against each other, flipping back and forth between characters in different places, instead of playing out in a linear, static fashion as in many other silent productions. The Penalty is a “find” (as Blizzard would describe Rose), and it’s essential viewing for Chaney fans and lovers of unconventional drama.