Wallace Worsley's magnificently brutish, dark, and psychologically violent The Penalty deals in a rare, frank form of discourse concerning sociological "worth" within the gnashing gears of its narrative. As the film commences, two doctors are entering into a pact to cover up a tragic misdiagnosis, which resulted in the younger doctor, Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary), needlessly amputating the legs of a young patient. This disfigured boy grows up to be Blizzard (Lon Chaney), the unlikely king of San Francisco's underworld, hobbling through the dark alleyways of the city on a pair of crutches and plotting a violent insurrection against the police and unyielding retribution against the man who butchered him as a child.
Blizzard is a ruthless, cautionary vision of ferocious bitterness, living with the physical symbol and origin of his curdled rage, but the filmmakers give a gothic twist to the man's menace through his unexpected soft spot for music. He plays the piano like a man possessed, with a randomly chosen female employee from his hat-making front pushing the pedals he can't reach—and when the chosen woman inevitably can't keep up with him, Blizzard reverts to his savagery and slays her. It's this reckless, macabre perfectionism that eventually bonds Blizzard to Barbara Ferris (Claire Adams), a dedicated sculptress and Dr. Ferris's daughter, for whom the criminal agrees to pose as a model for her sculpture of Satan. For Blizzard, she's only a stepping stone to exacting his revenge on her father.
The script, credited to Charles Kenyon and source author Gouverneur Morris, is tightly wound and economical for the sheer amount of cleverly suggested brutality, crime, tension, and psychological warfare it lays out. The Penalty's most stunning attraction, however, is Chaney, whose legs were doubled up and strapped against his back to allow the actor to look like he was walking on nubs (actually his knees). Suffering through what must have been prolonged, excruciating pain, Chaney is furiously expressive at every turn, perfectly invoking the rollicking passion and the demented, sadistic madness that now define Blizzard.
Blizzard's lone act of mercy is forgiving Rose (Ethel Grey Terry), an undercover agent playing the role of Blizzard's latest pedal girl, after she falls for the tenderness Blizzard expresses through music and subsequently reveals herself as his traitor. She remains with him, even as he continues to abuse her and begins a plan to both marry Barbara and take the legs of her fiancé, Wilmot (Kenneth Harlan). The film does a phenomenal job of illuminating the grisly lengths that Blizzard and his gangs will go to, but it smartly avoids easy catharsis, never showing the bloody ends that are alluded to. As Barbara and Blizzard build a professional relationship in her studio, the filmmakers build a character of complex fury and rousing artistic expressiveness, dependent almost entirely on Chaney's physical abilities and some intertitles.
The film offers a somewhat challenging moralistic ideal. The tangible powers of physical actions and psychological manipulation are stressed predominately, and there's no substantial sense that the narrative is laid out to confirm accepted mores. Dr. Ferris never really pays physically for his gruesome act, but he spends the rest of his life performing deeds of personal and communal good, and ultimately cures Blizzard of his savagery, if not his physical disablement. Blizzard, on the other hand, has used everyone around him for his entire life, turning many of them into undeserving recipients of the projected deep pain he carries with him. Are you defined by the wrong that was done to you or the wrong that you do? That Blizzard is utile to Barbara as a model for her sculpture of Satan lends yet another crucial detail to the thematic heart of Worsley's film: An image of evil, no matter how assumedly perfect, often hides a manifold history, equally bereft of condemnation and righteousness, and an image of unfettered good is often concealing a dark origin, welded by an inherent fear of poverty and alienation.
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Kino Lorber's reputation as saviors of silent-era classics is maintained nicely by this transfer of The Penalty, which originally appeared in their box set of silent-era horror films alongside The Man Who Laughs and The Cat and the Canary. On Blu-ray, the physical details and textures of the actors, the wardrobe, and the settings are presented with noticeably advanced clarity from the DVD release, and the color tone of the film, tinted various colors throughout, remains startlingly steady. There's also very little evidence of digital manipulation. Seeing as this is a silent picture, the audio only has to handle Rodney Sauer's lovely score, though it sounds clear and crisp.
The disc's extras include two magnificent teases. One is a trailer-like assemblage of footage from a lost Lon Chaney film, The Miracle Man, wherein he helps with a confidence scam involving spiritual healing. The other is By the Sun's Ray, a fuzzy one-reel western that starred Chaney and made early use of the actor's expressive face. A short documentary looking over Chaney's make-up and effects kit, along with the contraption and wardrobe he wore to physically create Blizzard in The Penalty, is informative, if not exactly engaging. Trailers of The Big City and While the City Sleeps are also included.
An essential work in the Lon Chaney canon, this early horror-tinged noir arrives on Blu-ray with an impressive A/V transfer and humble but rewarding set of extras.