Friday, October 13, 2017

Classic Films in Focus: THE PENALTY (1920)

Part crime drama and part body horror, The Penalty (1920) helped to propel Lon Chaney to true stardom after seven years in the film business and a long roster of less memorable roles. The melodramatic adaptation of Gouverneur Morris' novel about an amputee crime lord gave Chaney the opportunity to demonstrate the lengths he would go to create a physically distinct character, but it also allowed him to show his skill at conveying that character's complex emotional experience. Nearly a century later, Chaney's performance still has the power to move and horrify his audience in equal measure, although some of the story's attitudes toward women, immigrants, and people with disabilities have not aged nearly as well.

Chaney plays a notorious San Francisco kingpin called Blizzard, who lost his legs as a young boy when a novice surgeon (Charles Clary) prematurely amputated them following a car accident. The malpractice was covered up by the doctors, but Blizzard has never forgotten the gross injury done to him. While he plots the ransack of San Francisco with his criminal gang, Blizzard watches for an opportunity to avenge himself on Dr. Ferris, who has since become a well-respected surgeon. He finds his chance when the doctor's artistic daughter, Barbara (Claire Adams), advertises for a model for her sculpture of Satan after the Fall. Meanwhile, Blizzard himself is the target of the secret service, which sends the intrepid agent, Rose (Ethel Grey Terry), undercover into Blizzard's lair.

Chaney has a particular genius for making tragic figures of his most monstrous men, and Blizzard is a terrific example of the actor's ability to make us feel pity and even sympathy for someone sunk so low in the worst of human emotions. Of course we stare at Chaney's tortured body and wonder how he manages the physical feat of playing a legless man, but his face tells us even more about Blizzard's self-loathing and his longing for something beautiful and good in his life. He can look like the devil incarnate, but he can also recall to us the innocent boy whose life was ruined by a foolish doctor's haste. He has his best scenes with the film's two female characters, both of whom respond to the buried humanity that they sense within him. Rose even falls in love with him, though she knows perfectly well the long list of crimes he has committed. If the final explanation for Blizzard's crimes seems far-fetched, it does at least give Chaney another facet of the character to portray, showing that he can be credible as good men as well as monsters.

Blizzard is made more sympathetic by the frankly obnoxious men who are meant to be the "good guys" of the piece, namely Dr. Ferris and his assistant, Wilmot (Kenneth Harlan), both of whom treat Barbara's artistic efforts as a pointless waste of time. Blizzard might be using Barbara for his own insidious ends, but at least he takes her seriously as an artist. Ferris and Wilmot both dislike Blizzard primarily for being "crippled" and "deformed," even though it was Ferris himself who wrecked Blizzard's body by being an incompetent fool. While the film provides some pushback against the sexism and ableism embodied by the doctors, it never confronts its anti-immigrant, Red Scare depiction of Blizzard's army of anarchist "foreign workers" who intend to loot San Francisco. The scheme does, at least, explain Blizzard's decision to pull his "dancing girls" off the streets and put them to work making hundreds of straw hats, which the anarchists will wear as a sort of uniform when they rise up to ransack the city.

Despite these dated attitudes, The Penalty succeeds as a gripping silent drama with a strong flavor of the horrific thanks to Chaney's powerful performance. Anyone interested in the "man of a thousand faces" will find this picture worthwhile, especially if you've already seen later films like The Phantom of the Opera (1925), The Unholy Three (1925), and The Unknown (1927). Director Wallace Worsley worked with Chaney again on several movies, including The Ace of Hearts (1921), A Blind Bargain (1922), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). For contrast in terms of Chaney's depiction of a character with extreme leg problems, try West of Zanzibar (1928).

If you want to read more about The Penalty, check out this thorough discussion of the film at Movies Silently (warning - includes spoilers). The Penalty is currently available for streaming on the horror service Shudder.