The Penalty (1920)
Lon Chaney established himself as the master of makeup and evil characters with this crime-horror feature after years in cinema, developing his range and honing his abilities. His character’s complexities lead to a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a man driven by revenge and evil.
The movie begins with a classic supervillain-origin-story: a child who has been in an accident is under the care of a young, freshly-minted doctor (Charles Clary), who amputates both his legs beneath the knees. When the doctor’s mentor arrives on the scene, he pronounces the amputations unnecessary, and the child learns of his disfigurement by overhearing them, then witnesses both doctors lying to his parents to cover up the mistake. Thus are the seeds of insanity sown. The boy grows up to become known as “Blizzard,” the chief of the criminal underworld in San Francisco. We first see him in his new role after a goon named Frisco Pete (Jim Mason) kills a streetwalker called Barbary Nell (Doris Pawn) in a dance hall. Pete runs back to Blizzard’s hideout and beat cops wisely choose to look the other way when they realize who is behind it. We learn that Nell has “wandered” from Blizzard’s gang, perhaps because for some strange reason he has put all of his girls to work in a sweatshop making hats.
Rose, an undercover woman cop (Ethel Grey Terry) is recruited to infiltrate Blizzard’s gang, because her boss (Milton Ross) is convinced that he is building up some kind of “Red” activity. She manages to catch Blizzard’s eye and he brings her to his private chambers, where her job is to kneel beneath him and press the pedals of the piano while he plays. In this intimate and submissive position, Rose begins to fall in love with Blizzard, and her reports to the police become less punctual and informative, even as Blizzard begins to suspect something. Meanwhile, he has learned that the daughter (Claire Adams) of the doctor who maimed him is now a young artist, who brings models into a private apartment to pose for statues of which her father and fiancé (Kenneth Harlan) disapprove. When she advertises for a model to pose for a bust of Satan, Blizzard sees to it that no competition shows up, and secures the job for himself. This puts him nearer to his goal of gaining revenge on the doctor, which he has prepared for by having a medical operating theater built within his secret lair. The plan, as it develops, is to have the doctor amputate the legs of the fiancé and attach them to his stumps, then force the girl to marry him.
Meanwhile, he is also going ahead with his plan to rile up the “Reds” enough that they will start a revolt, giving him and his cronies the opportunity to loot the entire city of San Francisco. Apparently that is what the hats are for – because what is a revolution without appropriate headwear? Rose’s reports to the boss are infrequent and obscure, but one night she decides that she has to get him a full account. Unfortunately, the note is intercepted by one of Blizzard’s agents and he learns of her betrayal. He is unable to kill her, though, because he is so dependent upon her pedaling skill.
The doctor, when he is brought in to perform the leg transplant, tricks Blizzard and performs a different operation. In a passing intertitle early in the film, it was mentioned that the child also had a contusion at the base of his skull. This has been putting pressure on his brain, apparently, and causing him to become a psychopathic criminal. The doctor performs a simple operation to remove it and Blizzard becomes a perfectly decent fellow, no longer interested in crime or revenge. He allows the daughter and fiancé to go free and get married (evidently she’s content to be a housewife, not continuing as an artist now), and he settles down with Rose. However, Frisco Pete, a paranoid drug addict, becomes concerned that the reformed Blizzard will squeal, so assassinates him through the window. This, it seems, is his penalty for all of his evil deeds.
The first thing that strikes any viewer, then or now, is that Chaney manages to play a double-amputee without the assistance of any sort of camera trickery or computer effects. He simply tucked his knees into two rubber pots and strapped his feet behind him, and learned to walk with crutches and lift himself up on pegs with upper body strength. It was apparently intensely painful, and doctors advised against it, but Chaney insisted on doing it. And it works surprisingly well. His “stumps” are, in all honesty,, a bit larger than the top-half of his legs would be, and he has to wear a long coat as part of his costume to make sure we never see the backs of his legs, but what sells it is that he really gets around on his knees throughout the entire film, looking like he’s been doing it his entire life. Once you get past the novelty of that, however, the complexity and subtlety of the rest of his performance is what really shines through. Blizzard’s viciousness and brutality is tempered by the pain he shows in being rejected by the world for his deformity, by his undeniable charm, and by the glimpses we get of his artistic soul. As improbable as the ending transformation is, it works because Chaney is so good at showing us this “other side” of Blizzard – it’s been there the whole time, just buried under sneers and fits of anger.
This movie is otherwise more or less in the tradition of the crime films of Louis Feuillade, starting with Fantômas, and the criminal mastermind would be a part of movie lore throughout the silent period, soon to lead to Fritz Lang’s creation of Dr. Mabuse. It goes a bit beyond this, however, tapping into the post-war “Red Scare” that plagued America at the time. Confused and misinformed about events overseas, and confronted with propaganda and social change at home, Americans embraced paranoid fantasies about imminent revolution at home, leading to abuses of civil liberties and actions of mob violence against imagined enemies. Only months before the release of “The Penalty,” FBI head J. Edgar Hoover had warned Americans about a possible uprising on May 1, the day celebrated by the left as Labor Day, and vigilante groups fomented riots at labor demonstrations. All of this plays into the depiction of Blizzard’s activity, though I’m still not certain where the emphasis on hats came from. In 2020, that hat-wearers seem to mostly be on the other side.
Director: Wallace Worsley
Camera: Donovan Short
Starring: Lon Chaney, Charles Clary, Doris Pawn, Jim Mason, Milton Ross, Ethel Grey Terry, Kenneth Harlan, Claire Adams, Madlaine Traverse
Run Time: 90 Minutes
You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music)