Old 01-15-2014, 07:27 AM
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_____V_____ _____V_____ is offline
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Review - The Penalty (1920)

As a new parent, it’s nearly impossible to watch onscreen suffering without thinking of the victim as someone’s child. And if young children are the victims? Forget about it. I was reassured that my skin would someday build back up to its appropriate thickness and I’d be able to indulge in bloodthirsty cinematic voyeurism once again. But until that happened, I needed some other kind of fix—something to keep my hobby alive. I started watching silent films, largely because when holding a sleeping infant, the last thing you want are the sounds of bloodcurdling screams. Plus, I was unlikely to see anything too upsetting. Silent films were objects of nostalgia—they were safe…right?

Right. Here’s how The Penalty, starring Lon Chaney, begins: After a young boy is crippled in a car accident, an incompetent doctor needlessly amputates both of his legs, driving him to grow up and become a murderous criminal.

After its opening interlude of psychological child scarring, limb mutilation, and negligent parenting, The Penalty picks up twenty-seven years later as our unnamed protagonist has become a criminal mastermind and taken on the sobriquet “Blizzard.” Chaney famously put his knees in buckets and strapped his legs behind his back during filming, which makes him tougher than Gary Sinise who had his legs digitally erased for Forrest Gump. Chaney hobbles through the streets of the Barbary Coast with freakish dexterity, even leaping onto a table to threaten a room full of starved and abused hat makers. His performance is so electric and savage that very few performances from the silent era can compare.

What’s important is that Blizzard gets distracted from his master plan when he sees the opportunity to take revenge on the doctors that crippled him. It comes in the form of the following newspaper advertisement: “WANTED—Model to pose for statue of ‘Satan after the Fall.’ If you think you look like Satan, apply at studio of Barbara Ferris, 32 Institute Place.” Turns out, Barbara Ferris is the daughter of the doctor who crippled Blizzard twenty-seven years ago. This realization leads to one of my favorite moments in the film, in which Blizzard suffers a burst of melancholy and asks two of his agents “Do I look like Satan?” to which they shrug and nod as if to say, “Sure, I guess. I guess you look like Satan.”

This was Lon Chaney’s first starring role and he plays it like he knows he’ll never get another chance to make an impression. Even beyond his shocking physical contortions, he commands our attention in every single frame he’s in. Chaney would later join forces with Tod Browning, and while that partnership yielded some great films, The Penalty benefits from not having an auteur at the helm. Director Wallace Worsely had no intention of creating an atmosphere of weirdness the way Browning did. Instead, Chaney was allowed to create the character…then dropped into the real world—our world. The images of Blizzard plodding along the streets of San Francisco are jarring and indelible. Worsely and Chaney later collaborated on Ace of Hearts (1921) and the classic The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923).

While Kino’s DVD release is probably the preferred means of watching The Penalty today (despite its jarring electronic score), there are also perfectly legal, watchable versions on the internet. My most recent viewing was via YouTube on my iPhone, lying down in my son’s darkened room, waiting for him to drift off…reminding myself of the horrible things that can happen when children play in traffic.
"If you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." - Friedrich Nietzsche
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Old 01-15-2014, 07:39 AM
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hammerfan hammerfan is offline
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Hmm, that sounds interesting! Have to see if Netflix has it!
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Old 01-16-2014, 07:12 PM
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neverending neverending is offline

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A fine film and you're right- Chaney shined from the first moment. You could tell he would be a star.
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Old 01-16-2014, 09:41 PM
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Sculpt Sculpt is offline
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Originally Posted by _____V_____ View Post
Fine review. Enjoyed reading it, interesting backstory, and told me some things I'd like to know in regards to whether or not I'd want to see it.

...Blizzard suffers a burst of melancholy and asks two of his agents “Do I look like Satan?” to which they shrug and nod as if to say, “Sure, I guess. I guess you look like Satan.”
LOL! That is funny

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Old 03-15-2014, 12:52 AM
FryeDwight FryeDwight is offline
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Saw this on NETFLIX a couple of years ago and well worth seeing..pretty ballsy film in parts and Chaney is amazing in what must have been a difficult role.
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Old 08-25-2014, 08:20 PM
Nihilove Nihilove is offline
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I didn't realize that was his first role! Incredible!

What a performance.
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Old 02-26-2015, 11:09 AM
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Martha Martha is offline
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I have the film. It was great and Chaney was outstanding!

You really believed that he had no legs.

He be so perfect in his characterizations, he would actually go through pain himself.
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