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Combining a creative, atmospheric story with a fine performance by Lon
Chaney makes "The Penalty" an effective and memorable suspense classic. In
one of his earliest leading roles, Chaney is a complete success, both in
defining an unusual character and in bringing out everything inside the mind
of the sinister "Blizzard". You can already see his determination to make
his character visually convincing and flawless, even at the cost of great
discomfort. Chaney also shows, as he would so many times, his rare skill in
using facial expressions and gestures to show just the right amount of
emotion and intensity.
The story is quite interesting in itself, and though it slightly stretches plausibility at times, it is by no means predictable. The brief opening scene of the childhood accident efficiently sets up the background for the strange world dominated by Chaney's vengeful character when he becomes an adult. From there, the well-crafted story keeps you interested and keeps you guessing. The settings are well-chosen, creating an interesting and appropriate atmosphere, with Blizzard's strange hideout and the sculptress's cluttered studio both standing in contrast with the respectable-looking Dr. Ferris and the other characters.
A mere account of the events in the story would not convey the success of the movie in creating a distinctive world in which the characters come to life. This is also a case in which a silent film is probably more effective than a sound film would have been. One of the main flaws in many movies of this type is the vapid dialogue that dissipates the tension through unintentional humor. Here, the title cards need only convey some basic ideas - the rest of it is handled without sound by Chaney, by the rest of the cast, and by the production crew who put everything together so well.
If anyone has any doubts as to who is the greatest actor of all times, CHECK OUT THIS FLICK!!! No CG here to make legs disappear. Just One mans creativity and iron will. There is nobody in Hollywood (or anywhere else for that matter) who has the kind of mettle this guy had. Those who believe Lon only did Phantom and Hunchback type fare really need to see this. I have been a fan of Lon's work since seeing The Phantom at an early age. His makeup job nearly scarred me for life. My father had to explain to me that it was only makeup, show me a picture of what he really looked like (a picture of a middle aged, jowly, smiling man,) and tell me the tale of "the Man of a Thousand Faces." This hooked me. Lon delivers in this role. His animated face goes through all gears with liquid rapidity. The new "industrial" flavored soundtrack definitely adds something, too. Kudos to Kino for that. If you like Lon Chaney, you will love this movie. If you have never seen any of his work, this is a great place to start.
I saw this film on the big screen. From the beginning, one may get the
impression that this could be one of the "been there...seen this" plots.
Not true. The storyline is full of twists and turns throughout. Even the
title has a twist at the end of the movie. While watching the plot
I thought that it referred to the penalty the doctor and his family had to
pay for the operation performed on Blizzard as a boy (Lon Chaney's
character), making him handicaped...not so! Another twist is the female
detective's turning from her investigation to admiration of Blizzard; the
twist in the operation procedure performed on Blizzard to restore his
and then, the final twist at the end of the movie. Not what you would
expected...however, the final "penalty" is paid.
To sum it up...great actor and great story. Worth a repeat viewing. Rating: 9/10
A master criminal pays THE PENALTY for a life full of evil.
Lon Chaney became a major movie star with his role in this shocker. Already regarded as a fine actor for his performances in lesser films, he now proved he was quite willing to go far beyond mere makeup for the enhancement of his screen persona. His dedication to his craft, coupled with an outsized talent, were to make Chaney one of the foremost film actors of the 1920's.
Here Chaney plays a legless mobster who plots terrible revenge upon the doctor who maimed him (his plan to sack San Francisco of its wealth is almost incidental.) In order to create the illusion of being a paraplegic, Chaney bound his legs back and encased them in stumps. He is able to hop about with great alacrity using crutches, but he suffered intense pain during the filming and could only abide the prosthetics for short periods of time.
As remarkable as what he's able to achieve on his knees might be, it is the face of Chaney which is equally memorable here. The fact that he's able to model for a bust of Satan as part of the plot is no accident. His features take on the visage of pure unadulterated evil. The blood chills to look at him. Chaney the Actor has wordlessly spoken.
The film itself is a pleasantly florid potboiler, with plenty of menace, mayhem and damsels in distress. But it is Chaney who lingers longest in memory's darkest recess...
Morbid gothic revenge tale set in modern (1918) San Francisco. Chaney
one of his best performances ever as Blizzard, a legless criminal
out to get his back from the whole city of SF. He can only pillage the
treasury, as he envisions, with legs, so he plots to have a doctor
another man's legs and graft them onto his own.
Chaney is appropriately diabolical as he moves about on stumps and crutches faster than his bipedal friends. Phoney "redemption" through surgery climax does much to spoil the sadistic fun of the preceding seven reels.
This was the first starring role for Lon Chaney, and he's terrific playing a double amputee whose legs were both needlessly cut off as a boy by a young doctor who felt it was required to save the child's life after a serious accident. The boy eventually grows up to be an embittered underworld leader, looking to settle the score. Chaney gives a great performance and he is still amazing to watch today, even 86 years later, while painfully contorting his body to produce the needed effect, utilizing only his talent and ingenuity in place of today's CGI effects. Sure, Hollywood would have used CG back then if they had the luxury, but I still find it more mesmerizing this way. Lon had to pull his legs up behind his back and have them strapped tightly underneath a long overcoat, hobbling about on his knees. The direction is solid and the story is consistently interesting and multi-layered. It's very easy to sympathize with Chaney's character through his strong performance, but I felt that the way his criminal behavior was explained for the conclusion was a tad of a letdown. Still, quite a worthwhile film. *** out of ****
Lon Chaney (as Blizzard) is the underworld lord and master of San
Francisco, despite a striking disability - he has no legs. Mr. Chaney's
"Blizzard" was, as a boy, a "victim of San Francisco traffic", and had
his legs amputated above the knees, after an accident. Moreover, the
amputations were unnecessary; they were needlessly preformed by young,
inexperienced Charles Clary (as Dr. Ferris); Mr. Clary also leaves a
brain contusion untreated. As a boy, Chaney hears an older, experienced
doctor scold Mr. Clary on the unnecessary procedure; but, they cover up
the crime, and dismiss the young amputee's protests as delusions,
caused by ether.
Twenty-seven years later, the powerful crime lord decides to enact his terrifying revenge on the doctor who cut off his legs. Cheney answers a newspaper ad posted by Clary's daughter Claire Adams (as Barbara Ferris); she is a sculptress, looking for someone to model Satan, for her bust:
"WANTED -- Model to pose for statue of 'Satan After the Fall.' If you think you look like Satan, apply at studio of Barbara Ferris, 32 Institute Place. 8284"
The Satanic-looking Chaney is the perfect candidate to sit for the young woman; and, Ms. Adams welcomes him into her art studio, unaware (yet) of his unfortunate association with her father. Meanwhile, Cheney's underworld operation is being infiltrated by a spy; lawman Milton Ross (as Lichtenstein) has sent his best undercover agent, Ethel Grey Terry (as Rose), to gets the goods on Chaney. He is especially interested in why Chaney has his "show girls" making thousands of hats
"The Penalty" has a noticeable degree of implausibility, as do many films; and, it does become make the film more than a little distracting, at times. Yet, Chaney's performance is so commanding, and so thoroughly enjoyable, it's really pointless to list faults. The film works on the strength of Lon Chaney's performance. Director Wallace Worsley, photographer Donovan D. Short, and art director Gilbert White contribute to the master, by giving the film a great, atmospheric look.
Among the supporting players, James Mason (as Frisco Pete) is easily the standout. Young Edouard Trebaol (as Bubbles) is also well-employed, and natural, alongside the high degree of emoting present amongst the adults. Trebaol memorably re-teamed with Chaney in "Oliver Twist" (they were "Fagin" and "The Artful Dodger"). Interestingly, in the original Gouveneur Morris novel, "Bubbles" had an expanded role, which eventually revealed him to be the son of "Blizzard". That subplot would have added greatly to this film, further contrasting cruelty and humanity; and, of course, recalling the boy "Blizzard", and his earlier loss. It would have also confirmed the adult Chaney's obvious sexual prowess (note how women kneel down to play Chaney's pedals has he tickles the ivories).
Whatever its faults, "The Penalty" set the standard for the expertly performed and extremely successful Lon Chaney role - grotesque, anguished, sympathetic, and/or deformed. It started here. Give yourself a penalty if you pass up this Chaney classic.
********** The Penalty (11/15/20) Wallace Worsley ~ Lon Chaney, Ethel Grey Terry, Claire Adams, Jim Mason
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The Man of a Thousand Faces in 1920, before his prime, under the
direction of Wallace Worsley who would make him the Hunchback. But
instead of being the sympathetic and heart-warming freak, here he is a
demoniacal madman out for revenge.
"The Penalty" follows Blizzard, an underworld mastermind who had his legs unnecessarily amputated as a child (kinda like Reagan in "Kings Row"). And aside from general evil, crime, and mayhem, his main goal is to claim revenge on the doctor who did it. After we see the grisly mangling, we move to modern-day (1920) San Francisco where Frisco Pete, a drugged-out hoodlum, murders showgirl Barbary Nell and then flees to sanctuary at Blizzard's hide-out. The police send Rose, their undercover girl, to disguise herself as one of Blizzard's many molls, and become practically a concubine who presses the pedals as Blizzard plays the piano. Meanwhile, he works to seduce the sculptress daughter of the doctor who deformed him, posing as Satan for a sculpture. And all the while he's planning for the greatest crime spree of them all, when he'll bring thousands of disgruntled foreign laborers in to conquer the city...
God, "The Penalty" is creepy. It might not be the best-made movie of all time; the actors might not all stand out; the ending may be a cop-out. But it's got a lot of good points going for it. First, the title. "The Penalty" is about penalties of all kinds: Dr. Ferris must pay a penalty for his youthful indiscretions; Blizzard must pay a penalty for his life of crime. San Francisco must pay for creating monsters like Blizzard and Frisco Pete. The film is submerged in an idea of guilt, revenge, and comeuppance. Lon Chaney, as always, is an asset, in building a disturbing atmosphere of fear and loathing, as well as messing with the viewer's psyche through his performance. On turns you pity and hate him. Sure, he's evil. But his evil is so hypnotically attractive. And he's not entirely to blame for it. He's got no legs- can he still be fully responsible for his actions? Whatever Blizzard does, he revels in it. Climbing up the wall, with those stumps- can you take it? Like other quasi-horror films of the '20s and '30s, "The Penalty" is rife with hellish, gargoylian imagery. Beyond the buckets on Chaney's stumps and his legless swagger, there's the satanic sculpture and the apocalyptic fantasies (in which we see SF reduced to anarchic rubble) and the secret room full of chorus girls making hats, and the dirty underground corridors hidden behind Blizzard's fireplace, and the fully equipped operating room (in which he sets his bizarre revenge, which is worthy of Tod Browning). Then, looking at "The Penalty" from our postmodern perch, we can also enjoy the tinting (which changes from scene to scene) which gives it an almost psychedelic flavor, especially when combined with the soundtrack, which is a mixed bag. It's got some organ, some indistinguishable wailing, a couple possible leitmotifs, and what could be music from the darker levels of Super Mario Bros. It all comes together to give us, basically, "The Phantom of the Opera" meets "Citizen Kane" in hell, dimmed a few notches.
What can I say? If you like Lon Chaney, you're bound to love his role here. The finale may be a let-down, but those are the breaks. Watch with plenty of suspended disbelief and immerse yourself in the abstractly gritty, mildly Gothic San Francisco gangland of the 1920s.
Lon Chaney was probably one of the greatest actors of the Silver Screen and I have never been disappointed in any of his movies. The Man of a 1000 Faces truly was more deserving of a musical score better than the one given to "The Penalty". It was so irritating, I had to turn off the sound in order to enjoy yet another of his great performances. His supporting cast was also very good and the story/plot is fantastic. It is because of Lon Chaney that I (and others!) have taken such an interest in the silents. Over the years I have enjoyed Valentino ("The Eagle" is VERY impressive), Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and others, but Chaney leads the pack. A big BOO-HISS to whomever was responsible for the score, but again, a giant "10" to Chaney's performance!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I do love silent films and while this isn't a horror film, though I
believe Lon Chaney is probably known best today(if at all) by younger
viewers for his horror film work, it still a creeper. Lon plays Mr.
Blizzard, a crime kingpin who had his legs amputated at the knee when
he was a child. They were mistakenly amputated by a young doctor who
later made a great name for himself in the field of medicine and all
the while, Blizzard, in his crippled, broken body planned a very great
revenge against not only the doctor who disfigured him, but against the
entire town of San Francisco. His view was that cripples like him were
shunned by society, so the best place for him to be was in the criminal
underworld. He rose to a place of distinction(though one wonders how
since even though he is intimidating, most street hoods wouldn't have
been scared of him) and his villainous tendrils stretched out into many
pockets and back alley shenanigans. I enjoyed the dialogue and Chaney's
facial expressions are a true marvel. No one can look like him anymore.
And, more to the point, he truly suffered for this role. To be
realistic, and without the aid of the all too taken-for-granted CGI,
Lon rigged up a special harness to bind his legs so he could walk on
his knees with his lower legs tucked up behind him, under his coat. Not
only does it look like a painful device, Chaney himself commented on
its torturous design. There was a single dreamlike sequence towards the
end of the film where you see him with his "new" legs, but that scene
was eventually cut, and I feel rightly so. As a side, I loved the
second doorknob that was placed at kid-level just for him. My only
complaint about the film was the occasional use of an inappropriate
score, though at times spot-on, other times it was very ineffective and
even distracting. Obviously, this is a modern score and not the
Highly recommended for Chaney fans or just silent film buffs in general.
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