Wallace Worsley’s The Penalty (1920), a progenitor of the Hollywood crime film, traces the life of Blizzard (Lon Chaney, Sr.), a hardened crime boss in San Francisco, who attributes his delinquency to a misbegotten double leg amputation he underwent as a child. He walks with modified crutches under his arms, the stumps of his legs encased in an elaborate leather harness with two bucket-like coverings for him to “walk” on. Chaney’s incredible physicality is on excellent display here; he himself was not an amputee, and performed with both legs locked in a severe bend, walking completely on his kneecaps. He moves with stunning agility, hoisting himself up ropes and ladders with grace, and swooping in front of his terrified minions with terrible speed when the need arises. Chaney’s performance as Blizzard can’t help but evoke in any serious fan memories of his later, better-known roles, such as his star turn in Phantom of the Opera (1925) in which he also underwent legendarily painful costuming. Indeed, Chaney’s physical appearance is the lynchpin of the narrative itself, demonstrating over and over again that inner deformities can be detected by their outward, physical symptoms. Blizzard’s “deformity” is thus shown to be as much a result of his nefariousness as it is a cause. (In a pivotal moment, Blizzard decides to become a sculptor’s model, because he thinks he bears an excellent resemblance to the artist’s chosen subject: Satan.)
Perhaps the most obvious descendant of The Penalty is Tod Browning’s seminal film Freaks (1932), with its sustained focus—both thematic and visual—on people with bodies that society deems aberrant. But Worsley’s film can be viewed as an equally influential forerunner to the 1930s Hollywood gangster cycle (it immediately reminded me of Angels With Dirty Faces ), and the domestic psychological thrillers of the 1940s like Rebecca (1940) and Secret Beyond the Door (1947). There’s even a subplot with a hidden weapons cache stashed in a cave-like hidden basement, which the leading lady, an undercover cop, discovers in a scene straight out of Poe. Blizzard manipulates his errand boys with promises of money and drugs, and terrorizes the female employees in his crime-front hat factory like a monstrous mixture of James Cagney and Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo. He is one part charisma and two parts menace, frequently facing the camera head-on and communicating entire soliloquies through nothing but intense facial contortions, a technique that harks back to the very dawn of single-reel cinema.
Somehow, though, even these highly theatrical moments don’t disrupt the narrative enough for the viewer to lose a sense of Blizzard as a real character; Chaney is so committed to the role that he can grin like the Cheshire cat and still be completely believable. Even when Blizzard finally has a change of heart—brought on by surgery for an ancient head injury, furthering the idea that bad behavior always has an identifiable physical cause—Chaney manages to pull off a character transition from someone modeling for the role of Satan to a man committed to nothing more harmful than obviously embellished piano playing. He is simply a captivating onscreen presence, both physically and emotionally, and this film showcases both these facets of Chaney’s talent in equal measure.
This being said, the real star of The Penalty is Kino-Lorber’s new Blu-Ray transfer of the film. Created from a new 35mm restoration by the George Eastman House, it’s crisp and vibrant with hardly a scratch to distract from its lushly tinted mise-en-scenes. Light and shadow are vividly rendered, and the evenness of the picture allows the viewer to appreciate the full frame and depth of field, along with everything in them. Technical choices like iris-in transitions are very pronounced since the frame is so well-maintained throughout the film; there’s no wobbling or degradation of the image to distract from what’s going on inside it. In fact, it looks so good that it’s difficult to remember that this is a film from 1920—except for the fact that Chaney, who died in 1930, looks so kinetically, diabolically alive.
The Penalty is a must-see for any serious Chaney fan, as well as any film buff interested in early makeup and special effects, the origins of the crime-film craze of the 30s, or what pre-Code gangsters—or pre-Code films, for that matter—really looked like. An embarrassment of riches, Kino-Lorber’s Blu Ray also includes some short documentaries, including a tour of Chaney’s personal makeup kit, and the complete surviving footage of Chaney’s 1919 film The Miracle Man (directed by George Loane Tucker). Though it is in far poorer shape than the gorgeous restoration of The Penalty, The Miracle Man showcases another incredible performance by Chaney, who looks impossibly beautiful photographed in summer sunlight outside a cathedral. More than anything, in both of these films, Chaney looks impossibly young—an embodiment of that particular combination of eeriness and wistful immediacy that make early cinema so irresistible.
– By Lita Robinson