San Francisco, ancient stronghold of granola hippies, reaped many benefits from America's industrial and shipping largess. But synonymous with success is moral decline and it's growing in the growing underworld, where prostitutes who dress like housekeepers hook drunks...
...and the inadequacy of San Fran entertainment before Metallica is exposed.
San Francisco is also the home of Blizzard, who lost both legs in his boyhood, an unfortunate result of a surgeon's mistake. He's so bitter about this. But he has harnessed some of that negative energy and built a substantial criminal empire. Way to go!
Lon Chaney as Blizzard decimates the Dickensian stereotype of the sad-bastard cripple. Blizzard doesn't need legs to kick ass. His aura of hate can be felt from miles away and tragedy will befall the lazy lady worker at his hat sweatshop.
Meanwhile, the leg-taking surgeon had a daughter who grew up into a sculptress, which gives us a fine opportunity to enjoy some pre-code nudity. Her sculpting career isn't skyrocketing...
...so she places a fucking hilariously-worded ad, which catches Blizzard's evil eye.
You can guess most of the plot from here. THE PENALTY is sometimes classed as a horror film, but you'd have to be pretty lenient about your genretyping for that to work. I'd say that this is mostly a thriller/crime film with strong dramatic elements. Maybe if you accept simple deformity as a sufficient cause for horror (let's have this discussion again!). Otherwise, you'd have to point to the more subtly disturbing elements, like Barbara's kid friend Bubbles, who dresses like a British policeman.
As you'd expect, Chaney is king-size in this physically-demanding role. Between this and THE UNKNOWN, he developed a real proficiency at playing mutilated characters and it's pretty amazing to see him clambering up a wall, using only his upper-body strength. Chaney was a good physical actor, but he was also just a plain good actor and he invests Blizzard with the correct number of scary grimaces to scare you. But he also taps the script's potential and makes Blizzard a complete character, one who worries about fixing his hair before he meets a girl for the first time...
...and who has, in spite of his black heart, something of an artist's eye for life's finery.
Director Wallace Worsley made some interesting choices with the editing and pacing in this. THE PENALTY offers some early examples of prolonged synchronous scenes—we cut back and forth between police headquarters and Blizzard's hideout—but the timing seems to be somewhat off, as an incredible amount of time elapses with the baddies while the goodies are still having a conversation. It's weird and jarring in a good way, as opposed to another weird and jarring thing, the score on this disk. It sounds like ambient at times and like Goblin at other times, but once it reached limp 90s industrial, I hit the mute button and enjoyed THE PENALTY as a purely silent film. It really helped.
This was pretty fun, if nothing to up and die over. Chaney's performance aside, little here shoots for a higher level of virtuosity—it's basically just a diverting B-film, which is perfectly fine with me. If the list had just a little more spread, this would merit a close #11. As it is, the list isn't changing, but you should check this out if you like to have fun or want to see a faux-legless man climb up to a very high window.
TOP TEN OF THE 1920S (no change):
1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
2. Faust (1926)
3. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
4. The Man Who Laughs (1928)
5. The Unknown (1927)
6. Maciste in Hell/Maciste all'Inferno (1925)
7. The Wind (1928)
8. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
9. A Page of Madness (1926)
10. The Cat and the Canary (1927)