Tuesday, July 4, 2017

FILMBAY 2000 Greatest Films of All-Time (1888-2016) by Year - 0209 - PENALTY, THE (Wallace Worsley, 1920, USA, 90m, BW)



(Wallace Worsley, 1920, USA, 90m, BW)


PENALTY, THE (Wallace Worsley, 1920, USA, 90m, BW)

Cast: Lon Chaney, Claire Adams, Charles Clary, Ethel Terry, Edouard Trebaol, Milton Ross, James Mason, Clarence Wilson, Lionel Barrymore, Kenneth Harlan, Wilson Hummell, Doris Pawn, Lee Phelps, Montgomery Carlyle
Director: Wallace Worsley, Wallace Worsley Sr.
Writer: Charles Kenyon, Philip Lonergan
Rating: NR
Running Time: 70 min.


As a child, Blizzard (Lon Chaney) is involved in a car accident in which the attending physician, Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary), unnecessarily amputates both his legs. Years later, Blizzard is the head of the San Francisco mob and is determined to exact revenge on Dr. Ferris. He sees an opening when he meets the doctor's daughter, sculptor Barbara (Claire Adams), and agrees to pose for her to carry out his scheme. Little does he know, his employee Rose (Ethel Grey Terry) is a police operative.


It is worth noting how well Lon Chaney could act when he was hampered by costumes that must have been incredibly painful. He is such a malicious, malevolent, evil man here that he takes your focus away from the fact that he hobbles around on crutches for the length of the movie. The story itself is only slightly a horror story (basically, the fact that the villain is a double amputee and a certain air of degeneracy in the proceedings) and offers only the slightest whiff of science fiction (basically, part of the plot deals with transplants), so it remains largely marginal. It starts out with a Mabuse-like setup, but it ends up not really delivering in this regard; the ending seems doctored, artificial and pat, and is not very satisfying. This one is primarily of interest for Chaney's performance.

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.


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