As regular readers know, this is the second annual series I've done on silent horror. The first year, I discovered a real stand out that I had somehow woefully neglected in my pursuit of pre-talkie fright flicks: the unbelievably brilliant Häxan, which is not just one of the best horror films of the silent period, but one of the greatest films ever made, period. It may be too soon to declare this just yet, but I think Wallace Worsley's 1920 horror/crime drama, The Penalty, starring the legendary Lon Chaney, might be the great discovery of this second series.
Worsley's creepy, almost Gothic, tale of crime and punishment begins at the bedside of a young boy who has been injured in an automobile accident. Two doctors, the young Dr. Allen and the more experienced Dr. Ferris, tend to him. Allen tells Ferris that, fearing for the boy's life, he took drastic measures and amputated the boy's legs. Ferris examines the patient and, to Allen's horror, declares that the amputation was unnecessary. The boy, still somewhat delirious, begins to wake. Ferris, deciding that this could ruin the young doctor's career before it has even begun, takes the bullet for Allen: Ferris tells the parents of the now legless lad that the double amputation was necessary.
Jump to San Francisco, 1912: The young boy has grown up to be Blizzard, the brutal crime lord of the Barbary Coast's vicious underworld. Murder, prostitution, jewel thefts, white slavery – Blizzard is behind it all. But, lately, something even bigger and more sinister is going down. Secret Service agents assigned to bust the elusive Blizzard have noticed that he's inexplicably pulled several of his working girls off the street and has them working away in a sweatshop creating tons of straw caps. They send in Rose, one of their agents, to infiltrate Blizzard's organization. Once inside, Rose finds out that Blizzard is launching nothing short of an armed invasion of the city. Unfortunately, Rose also begins to fall for the diabolical genius.
Meanwhile, we learn that Blizzard is working a mad revenge plan to punish Ferris and Allen. Ferris's daughter, Barbara, is a wannabe artist with the requisite pretensions to boho slumming and bleeding heart attitudes toward crime lords. When pressured by her fiancée, Allen, to give up the art thing, she begs him off in order to create one last sculpture: Satan after the fall. Blizzard contrives to be Barbara's model and attempts to seduce her. Though the seduction fails, the results are compromising to place Allen and Ferris right where Blizzard wants them – he plans to force Ferris to chop off Allen's legs and transplant them on the crime lord. Once he's fully mobile, Blizzard intends to lead his forces against the City by the Bay. The ultimate fate of San Francisco is decided in the operating theater hidden under Blizzard's HQ.
The Penalty seems riotously overstuffed. Mad science, revolutionary schemes (a reflection of the first, and considerably worse, Red Scare in US history – then called Palmerism after the then-Attorney General, it represents perhaps the low point of civil rights in post-slavery American history and makes the 1950s Red Scare look downright timid by comparison), domestic dramas, class struggles, revenge – there's an absurd amount of crap going on here. Still, the movie moves along at a brisk clip, never dragging or losing it viewers. Worsley proves adept at shifting and combing styles as the crazy-quilt story demands. He goes from an unobtrusive stage-like style for domestic scenes, to shadow shrouded expressionism, to Griffith-worthy epic crowd scenes without jarring the viewer. The Penalty is a brilliant example of way a director without much in the way of personal style can still produce a top-notch film by fitting his work to the demands of the material rather and working to let the other aspects of the work shine.
Most notable "other aspect" is the one, the only Lon Chaney as the titanic, Satanic Blizzard, crippled crime king of the Barbary Coast. Chaney's performance, even though he's bound up to disguise the fact that he's got two legs, is astounding. Too often Chaney's work is presented as if it was a special effect. The make-up that he so often covered his face with now threatens to bury his legacy. Chaney's transformation into a double amputee is astounding – all the more so for the fact that you quickly forget it is a trick and, in a way, it is so successful as to obscure itself. But concentrating on the "trick" aspect of his performance doesn't do it service. Chaney's Blizzard is a scene stealing, epic villain who radiates a physical mastery of everybody around him. His performance is all the more interesting in that the script wants to add a sort of pitiable victimized aspect to the character, but Chaney's performance keeps dragging Blizzard back into something inhumanly evil and monstrous. In The Penalty we get to see what happens when a master actor gets his character better than the screenwriter or director do. The supporting cast also does a fine job. Jim Mason (credited as James Mason, but it isn't THAT James Mason) turns in an entertaining turn as Frisco Pete, one of Blizzard's thugs. Mason would go on to appear in a handful of John Ford films, most notably Stagecoach and Young Mr. Lincoln. Through no fault of her own, Ethel Grey Terry turns in the most frustrating performance of the film as Rose, the Secret Service agent. At the beginning of the film, Rose appears fearless and resourceful. I was actually excited to see such a strong female character in the flick. Ultimately, the character is ultimately reduced to a handful of predictably Victorian stereotypes once her fascination with Blizzard is established and a truly interesting character is squandered.
There are some glaring problems with The Penalty. The flick has a hollow and moralistic ending that feels tacked on. This makes the last ten minutes or so of the film a bit of a drag. There's also several now-offensive appeals to the ever popular "cult of domesticity" that, one imagines, were already shopworn when the film was originally released. As women fought for the vote, one wonders how the line a line about every true woman wanting "love, a good home, and children" played. It is easy to dismiss these attitudes as dated, but the film seems to die a bit when this stuff pops up which suggests to me that even the filmmakers knew they were pandering. That pandering, even more than the crap morality that's being fobbed off, is what rankles. Finally, the music on the Kino Films edition is a mistake: synthesized, repetitious music occasionally punctuated with often jarring sound effects (for example, touch-tone dialing sounds echo throughout the scene in which Blizzard's criminal army seizes turn of the century telephone switchboard).
These minor problems are not enough to scuttle the brilliance of the rest of the film. The Penalty is one of the reasons people like me are still attracted to silent era flicks. I recommend it highly.
As an aside, you can score a cheap laugh when the Secret Service agents first learn that Blizzard is recruiting "disgruntled foreigners." When the head agent says," Men and hats – what is the devil up to?" shout out "The safety dance, sir!" It killed while we were watching the flick.