The Penalty (1920) Review

Director: Wallace Worsley

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 90 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1920 crime-drama The Penalty was the breakout film for iconic movie star Lon Chaney. A San Francisco gangster named Blizzard (Lon Chaney), who had both of his legs unnecessarily amputated after an accident as a child, plots his revenge on the physician – Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary) – who mistakenly robbed him of his legs and against the city of San Francisco as a whole. It’s not a horror movie, like some say, but rather a grotesque drama, the kind that Chaney seemed to specialize in.

In order to play a double-amputee, Lon Chaney wore a special harness, allowing him to walk on his knees. The effect is virtually flawless, although the strain of the performance apparently damaged Chaney’s knee muscles for the rest of his life. With this knowledge, it makes every second that Blizzard (Chaney’s character) appears onscreen feel painful. This is definitely his show, but it has the interesting touch of having a female undercover agent – Rose (Ethel Grey Terry) – try to infiltrate his den of sin to bring it down.

As wonderfully pulpy and sinister as The Penalty is, it is slightly marred by a weird, anti-climactic ending. I won’t spoil it here, and it’s certainly not horrible, but it is bizarre and causes the picture to fail to live up to all of its potential. Given that the feature was released during the First Red Scare, there is some minor xenophobic content (where foreigners are not to be trusted), but it doesn’t have much of an impact on my overall impression of the work.

Sent to theaters at the beginning of the 1920s, this silent film has aged surprisingly well. It’s actually quite excellent. Not everything about it makes sense, but its intimidating mood, reasonably concise story, and fantastic performance from Lon Chaney do not lie. One of the first mobster movies, it still may be one of the better ones.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

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