Lon Chaney was more than just an actor. He was a magician. Like a chameleon, he could morph into a character.
Directed by the all-but-forgotten Wallace Worsley, the gruesome shocker The Penalty stars Chaney as Blizzard, the victim of a botched operation that had left him, while still a kid, with two amputated legs. Later in life, Blizzard becomes a professional criminal in San Francisco's Barbary Coast district, and tries to avenge himself against the doctor (Charles Clary) who performed the surgery by seducing his artist daughter (Claire Adams) while posing for a study of “the face of evil.”
When a female undercover agent (Ethel Grey Terry) infiltrates Blizzard's gang, the suspense mounts as she investigates his nefarious deeds. Eventually, however, even she falls under his spell.
Lon Chaney: 'Flawless' Blizzard
Lon Chaney is flawless in his portrayal of Blizzard. In fact, the only fault in The Penalty is the editing – as found in the Kino DVD edition – which much too abruptly jumps from one scene to the next. This DVD version, I should add, boasts a score by Michael Polher whose cacophonous themes annoyed me the first time I saw the film. But with subsequent viewings, I grew to appreciate how Polher's music fit the characters' volatility.
Finally, I particularly enjoyed the O. Henry-type ending involving an ironic twist to Blizzard's change of heart. Indeed, the film is full of plot twists and surprises. In other words, The Penalty is silent thriller at its best.
The Penalty 1920 DVD: Lon Chaney extras
Kino's The Penalty DVD also offers original theatrical trailers from two Lon Chaney movies, The Big City and While the City Sleeps; surviving footage of George Loane Tucker's 1919 box office hit The Miracle Man, featuring Chaney, Thomas Meighan, and Betty Compson; and Chaney's 1914 one-reel Western By the Sun's Rays.
© Danny Fortune
The Penalty (1920). Dir.: Wallace Worsley. Scr.: Charles Kenyon and Philip Lonergan; from Gouverneur Morris' novel. Cast: Lon Chaney, Kenneth Harlan, Ethel Grey Terry, Claire Adams, Doris Pawn, Charles Clary, Jim Mason, Milton Ross.
Lon Chaney and Claire Adams in The Penalty 1920 photo: Kino Lorber.