The Penalty (1920)
“Blizzard, master of San Francisco’s underworld, legless, deformed–the weirdest character ever presented on the screen–you’ll never forget him.”
Director: Wallace Worsley
Cast: Lon Chaney, Charles Clary, Doris Pawn
Synopsis: A deformed criminal mastermind plans to loot the city of San Francisco as well as avenge himself on the doctor who mistakenly amputated his legs.
The Penalty jumps right into its plot with a young boy needlessly having both of his legs amputated above the knee by an inexperienced doctor. The semi-conscious boy overhears an older surgeon berating the younger medic and then promising to cover for him, but nobody believes the boy when he tells what he heard. Fast-forward 27 years and we’re in a less salubrious area of San Francisco, a hotbed of prostitution, alcohol, drugs and crime, arriving just in time to see Barbary Nell (Doris Pawn) being memorably knocked off by Frisco Pete (James Mason) who then hides out in the lair of no-legged master-criminal Blizzard (Lon Chaney). Blizzard has the local police in his pocket and pretty much controls organised crime in the city. And, yes, he once was that wretched little boy who woke up without his legs. We never find out exactly why he had to have them amputated, but we’re left in no doubt that he’s still more than a little disgruntled about it.
Chaney played the part with both lower legs strapped up so that he had to walk on his kneecaps. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand just how much that must have hurt, and apparently his leg muscles never fully recovered from the ordeal. He does look suitably creepy in the role, though, and although his disability is a somewhat far-fetched contrivance, it serves to add a little more depth to the usual master criminal persona. Chaney gives such an accomplished performance that we get a real sense of how his affliction has affected him.
Despite the passing of nearly three decades, Blizzard hasn’t forgotten Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary), the inexperienced young doctor who parted him from his legs, and he now plans to get his revenge on him by seducing his sculptress daughter (Claire Adams) while simultaneously organising the mass co-ordinated looting of the City by an army of criminals. However, Lichtenstein (Milton Ross), the head of the Secret Service, is on the case and has ordered Rose (Ethel Gray Terry), one of his best agents, to infiltrate Blizzard’s headquarters to find out just what he’s up to.
Despite his diminutive stature, Lon Chaney gives a towering performance in The Penalty and effortlessly dominates every scene he’s in. Somehow, the plot even allows us a small measure of sympathy for Blizzard, even though it repeatedly equates him with the Devil (he even has a lair in the basement). The plotline might be a little lurid, which isn’t unusual for the era, but it features some terrific location photography of 1920s San Francisco streets. It also examines society’s underbelly in a way that Hollywood movies would be prevented from doing once the Hays Code came into force, and is not coy about portraying prostitutes as prostitutes rather than good time girls, or showing a junkie’s desperation for heroin which leads him to abduct a police detective on the street and kill him. The Penalty is a fascinating and potent crime drama that still entertains despite its myriad implausibilities and a cop-out ending.
(Reviewed 29th June 2012)