Sympathy for the Devil: The Penalty (1920)

Wallace Worsley’s The Penalty packs a real punch. And not just for a silent movie.

This sicko gem features, among other things, a stark naked woman, a junkie killer, prostitutes, a chase through San Francisco’s seedy “Barbary Coast,” and a Lon Chaney performance so wicked and ferocious that it borders on possession.

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This is one bad dude. Even by today’s standards.

Even I, who proselytize the glory of the silent era, am recurrently shocked by the intensity and dead-on brutality of this film—an astonishingly raw point of reference for all horror and crime films that followed it.

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See that lady on your left? She’s nude. Really. And this was for general admission!

When I give it a thought, and I often do, I realize that horror films and gangster films have a lot in common. They both emerged, in the forms we recognize today, from genre cycles in the 1930s after some strong foundations were put down in the silent era. They both tend to feature linear, predictable plot trajectories—rise-and-fall for the gangster film, unleashed-amok-destroyed for the horror film.

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Do we love to hate him? Or do we hate to love him?

The horror and crime genres also inspire a mixture of revulsion, pity, sympathy, and, dare I say, admiration for their grotesque protagonists. Monsters and criminals entice us to join (vicariously) in their savagery—there’s something liberating about their intoxicating, anarchic hubris. And, most of the time, they let us indulge whatever aggression many of us harbor towards authority figures—doctors, policemen, community leaders, and the better angels of our nature, our own morally-upright doubles.

And, so, at the crux, the crossroads of all of these emotions we experience in contact with the gangster and the monster, we arrive at The Penalty.

The story starts with a little injured boy, “a victim of the city traffic,” as the intertitles tell us, lying unconscious in a doctor’s office.  Dr. Ferris had to amputate the kid’s legs.

Well, he thought he had to.

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It turns out that the inexperienced surgeon made a mistake, an older doctor informs him, as the now legless little boy wakes up and listens with horror.

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However, even though the boy knows the truth, the doctors decide to cover for each other. Yup, that’s right, the doctor gets off free as his colleague backs up his malpractice—while the “mangled” child screams the truth to his parents in vain.

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Okay, so raise your hand if you wouldn’t try to exact demonic retribution on someone who not only took away your legs and all hope of a normal life (this was the 1920s), but also made it so that you could never, ever talk about what happened?

I really hope no one raised his hand.

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This opening scene, unusually poignant for a gangster film, immediately establishes our sympathy with the future bad guy. The anguish of the child sucks us right in—and we get several flashbacks to this scene throughout the film to remind us of that irredeemable loss and sickening injustice. What’s been done can never be made right—so who can blame that little boy for not having any particular concept of wrong? He lives the wrong every day of his life.

The Penalty squirms around this uncomfortable question of the world’s wronged and the rage that germinates within them. I think a lot of people just quote Alexander Pope’s famous line, “To err is human; to forgive divine,” without giving it too much thought. In the end, forgiveness isn’t human. It’s not natural. It does not come easy—and perhaps it shouldn’t, since I could rattle off a few things that I consider unforgivable, and I’m not talking about dissing black-and-white movies. Forgiveness isn’t half as human as vengeance. If you’ll pardon me for ripping an idea from the Rolling Stones, I think most people would find it far easier to relate to proud, self-centered, dissatisfied Satan than to God, in his infinite, incomprehensible wisdom and goodness.

And Blizzard, “lord and master of the underworld,” the warped man that grows out of that amputated boy, could probably teach the devil a thing or two. And he happens to look a lot like him! Blizzard sets out to destroy Dr. Ferris by ingratiating himself with Ferris’ daughter, Barbara—a sculptor who hopes to achieve artistic immortality through a depiction of the devil. She even puts an ad in the newspaper.

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As he reads this ad, Blizzard does look positively diabolical.

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Then, remembering the cause of all of his suffering (we get a brief flashback to the opening scene), Chaney’s face shifts through so many transformations—from anticipation to self-congratulatory glee to pensiveness to frightening resolve.

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Then he turns to his henchmen and asks them probably the most darkly funny question ever put on an intertitle. One thinks of the “I amuse you?” scene from Goodfellas!

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“Uh… do we tell da boss he looks like Satan?”

Once Blizzard infiltrates Barbara’s studio, he sets about winning this young woman’s confidence while she works on the aforementioned bust of Satan. Their discussions take on a strangely allegorical ambiance as they talk in the midst of half-made statues and grotesques.

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The act of creation in tandem with an ongoing process of manipulation and destruction gives the film a surreal headiness that counterbalances the realistic grittiness of the street scenes. In this way, The Penalty reminds me of Kurosawa’s almost unbearably good High and Low (sometimes entitled Heaven and Hell) since both films combine squalor and art—to recast squalor as art.

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The Penalty, too, relies on a Heaven-and-Hell motif that zeroes in on the origin of all horror and gangster films. Because, what are horror and gangster films if not variations on the story of The Fall… but from a perspective uncomfortably close to the devil’s? Both genres tend to look up from the filthy underworld and inculcate more that a little sympathy for the devil.

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Blizzard is an especially interesting gangster (and monster) because his physical limitations emphasize his mental prowess. He recalls Milton’s Satan of Paradise Lost who is, to borrow his own words, “A mind not to be chang’d by place or time./ The mind is its own place, and in itself/ Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” (Book I, Line 253) Like the scariest kinds of monsters, our disabled movie villain corrupts others with his charisma and manipulates his victims to do his bidding. In so doing, he foreshadows the mind-control techniques of Lugosi’s surprisingly hands-off Dracula—and also, I would argue, of Don Corleone who rules his empire by loyalty and psychological terror as much as by real physical force.

Even apart from its rather deep thematic undercurrents, The Penalty stands out as a finely constructed film. Immediately after the opening scene in the doctor’s office, the film plunges us right into an action sequence and a killing in the sordid “Barbary Coast” district of San Francisco. Interestingly, the intertitles describe the Barbary Coast as “a hideous blemish” on the face of the city, making the use of disfigurement as a metaphor for crime and vice even more obvious.

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Prostitutes ply their trade in the Barbary Coast… and get into trouble.

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In this den of iniquity, Frisco Pete, played by perennial silent brute James Mason (not to be confused with James ‘Soulful British Eyes’ Mason), stabs a hooker “Barbary Nell” in a dance hall and flees the police through the maze-like, shabby streets of the town.

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The crazy doorways and alleys of San Francisco’s “Barbary Coast”

Finally, Pete runs into Blizzard who agrees to hide him. A movie that throws you right into a chase sequence—hmm, where have I heard of that before? Oh, yeah, almost every single modern gangster or cop film!

The Penalty also interweaves between several “time bomb” plot devices, juggling Blizzard’s twisted personal revenge scheme, which I won’t spoil, with his larger ambition of looting San Francisco. We actually see the realization of this ambition in the eye of Blizzard’s mind, as flames and smoke engulf the city and Blizzard (with legs, since this is his fantasy!) directs his hoodlums to sack and pillage the city.

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So, in its own quiet way, The Penalty paved the way for large-scale heist sequences. More important, with its “hypothetical heist,” a big robbery that takes place only in the mind of a character, the film experiments with the psychological and narrative complexity of crime strategizing.

In another interesting (if not entirely satisfying) subplot, a female police operative, Rose, goes undercover as one of Blizzard’s dance hall girls/sweatshop workers. As Rose races against time to discover Blizzard’s plan, she lingers in the shadow of The Fate Worse Than Death and the danger of being discovered.

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“I like your spunk. I think I’ll wait to kill you tomorrow.”

The undercover cop angle works generally well and infuses the film with suspense—especially as the hardened young policewoman begins to fall for the magnetically evil Blizzard.

Like Richard III, Shakespeare’s great archvillain and another Satan variant, Blizzard handles women with supreme skill.

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Blizzard is not exactly a one-woman man…

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He doesn’t just compensate for his lack of legs. Instead, he uses his “deformity” to his advantage, cultivating pity and catering to a weirdly fetishistic attraction. When Barbara Ferris first sees him and recoils slightly, Blizzard responds to her shock by suavely looking down at his stumps as though noticing them for the first time.

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He then returns her gaze with a flirty smile, as though to imply that there’s enough of him for anything really critical.

(Incidentally, the leg harnesses that Chaney had to wear to portray Blizzard’s disability were so painful that he could only act for about 20 minutes at a time.)

Blizzard also loves to play the piano, but, since he can’t reach the pedals, his current favorite among the dance hall girls has to push them for him. Woe to the dame who doesn’t press those pedals in time with the tune!

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You don’t need to watch to film to recognize this as an oddly sexualized act of subjugation—especially given how much enjoyment and excitement Blizzard derives from playing.

Classic horror films derive much of their bite (pun intended) from the sexual menace of the monsters. (Duh. They did it so well that ghastly, slushy versions of these Gothic tales are mega-hits even these days.) The sex and/or love lives of the gangster also provide inexhaustible subject matter for crime films. Is there a more iconic 1930s scene than Cagney smashing girlfriend Mae Clark in the face with a grapefruit at breakfast, the sleaziest meal of the day in Pre-Code cinematic lingo?

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Well, Blizzard, a freak, a seducer, and a criminal mastermind, connects the two strands of creepy, sadistic fascination—he is the missing link between the gangster and horror genres. Through a clever cinematic presentation and Chaney’s incandescently ugly performance, The Penalty provokes every kind of emotion that a monster or crime film might hope to tease from a spellbound audience.

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(A word of warning: I have no intention of spoiling the ending of The Penalty. The ending spoils itself. A lame, apologetic, neat-as-a-librarian’s-sock-drawer denouement amputates this masterpiece manqué and leaves it as incomplete as its fierce antihero. Don’t say I didn’t tell you. But, come on, it was 1920. Try and show me a film this gritty and disturbing made in Hollywood in the last ten years. Please, make my day.)

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Frisco Pete, what was once quaintly termed a “hophead,” begs Blizzard for a fix.

Also, for great, thought-provoking writing about crime films, you should totally check out the Scenes of the Crime Blogathon! It’s so cool, it’s criminal!

Scenes of the Crime Blogathon

The Party’s Over: Bullets or Ballots (1936)

“What time does the crime picture start?” Al Kruger, notorious racketeer, asks the box office girl of a movie theater. When a gangster film from 1936 opens with a line that self-referential, I’m already glued to my screen.

In fact, a big, unmistakable movie marquee—advertising a crime picture—fills the first shot of Bullets or Ballots before the camera descends with a smooth crane downwards to focus on a sparkly-new car pulling up to the theater.

It turns out that this picture parlor will be projecting a short docudrama about Al Kruger, so of course the gangster had to show up and see how he’s being portrayed on the silver screen.

Bullets or BallotsPoint well-taken, movie. Gangsters don’t merely inspire crime films—they can be inspired by them or insulted by them, for that matter. From the first, Bullets or Ballots drolly reminds us that crime may be the ultimate pop culture phenomenon.

Criminals enjoy their status as celebrities and trendsetters… but they also borrow from previous celebrity gangsters and have to worry about how public opinion chooses to look at them. Remember how media-savvy Michael proves himself in The Godfather, spinning his murder of Sollozzo and McCluskey into a public relations coup?

Well, he’s just one in a line of very public enemies, both real and fictional, who cultivated their persona and image in the gaze of the media. For instance, Al Kruger in this film was heavily based on larger-than-life Dutch Shultz. A few years earlier, Al Capone’s henchmen actually visited Ben Hecht to make sure that old Al would get a fair shake in Scarface.

Bullets or Ballots jokes about this chiasmus, this feedback loop: gangsters as stars, and stars as gangsters. But it’s no joke, as we soon learn.

Al Kruger (1930s stalwart Barton MacLane) and his cool-as-a-corpse henchman ‘Bugs’ Fenner (Humphrey Bogart) swagger into the movie theater just as the picture starts. The newsreel trumpet fanfare sounds out, creating a weird echo between the movie within the movie and the real movie theaters where viewers in 1936 would’ve seen Bullets or Ballots.

As Kruger and Fenner plunk themselves down, they gaze up at the screen with deadpan faces that make the situation even more comical. From the perspective of a 1930s spectator, we’re at a movie and we’re watching people watching a movie.

Audiences across America must have giggled at the fact that the stereotypical tough-guys, slouched in their seats, almost appeared to be watching them from a movie theater in a parallel universe. In the 1930s, roughly one in two people in the whole United States went to the movies once a week. Well, these racketeers apparently took enough of a break from their racketeering to go to the flicks. Ah, gangsters: they’re just like us!

I appreciate these reflexive, semi-forth-wall-breaking sequences in old movies not so much because they herald any particular formal genius on the part of the director. I love self-referential moments because of what they suggest about the audiences of that time. Directors and studios expected viewers in the 1930s to be every bit as clever and receptive to meta-gags as we are today. It drives me simply mad when people think that gangster movies started self-consciously alluding to other gangster movies in the 1960s and 1970s.

Nope—long before the film brats rolled into town, viewers had already learned how to decode movies as mash-ups and in-jokes. Which is why I laugh my head off at any declarations that this strange, stupefied, passive state called “absorption” dominated audience reactions to movies until art cinema shook things up. What ridiculous academic claptrap! And that’s said as someone who’s even rather attached to academic claptrap. Bullets or Ballots scored a smash hit at the box office—appropriate since it starts at one—and I think it succeeded in part because of how comically aware the film is of its own relation to other gangster films.

A real New York market in a fictional film.

But, back to the film. The public service message that Kruger and Fenner went to see, “The Syndicate of Crime,” a short film about the evils of racketeering, manages to be both exposition (we get the background on New York rackets) and a genuine public service message, telling us about the dastardly grift that racketeers are earning. There’s real archive footage and a real message about crime—but the segment also propels the plot forward and gets a boost from some parody, since the guy playing Kruger in the short film is woefully hammy and stereotypical.

Phony Kruger (above) is a real hoot… but the original (below) doesn’t seem too amused.

Wait, I hear you saying—is this a comedy? Don’t bet on it.

At the end of the newsreel short, a reformer speaks out and urges the public to use their votes to fight the gangsters (…and we have a title!). This goody two-shoes says that he’ll continue to speak out against crime and corruption. Well, no happy ending for this guy!

He gets gunned down by Fenner in the next scene—fully integrating the part real, part made-up newsreel into the plot. I admire this mixture of fact and fiction, a balance of documentary and illusion that the 1960s New Wave filmmakers, I would argue, didn’t so much invent as steal from 1930s Warner Brothers films. All in all, the opening sequence of Bullets or Ballots packs a punch.

Alas, the rest of the film doesn’t live up to this opening theater scene. I would describe the movie as good square WB entertainment and definitely above average for the mid-1930s—but not great. Bullets or Ballots won’t ever attain classic status in the same league of the gangster-driven dramas made before 1934, like Scarface and The Public Enemy—even if this film can boast Bogie, Robinson, and Blondell among its cast.

Edward G. Robinson, whose Little Caesar tore up the screen with pipsqueak ferocity, makes the best of an unfortunately sappy character. He plays Johnny Blake , a pugnacious, but likable career policeman who decides to help bring down New York racketeers by undertaking a virtually suicidal mission. Pretending to double-cross the police, he embeds himself with the bad guys as an anti-cop consultant.

Sound suspenseful? Well, it would be, but we don’t learn until way into the film that Blake is still working for the police! Evidently, Hitchcock wasn’t around to let the director, William Keighley, know that a time-bomb is only scary if we know it’s there all along and are waiting for it to go off.

We eventually recognize Bullets or Ballots as an early “sting” or “undercover cop” film that benefits from Warner Brother’s hard-hitting style. That’s the problem with Bullets or Ballots: it focuses on crime fighting too much to deliver the thrills of crime or the elegant rise-and-fall trajectory that adds momentum to the prototypes of the genre. Seriously, brace yourself for extra helpings of newspaper montages about raids and smashed criminal rings.

Despite the many fine aspects of this film, it throws me into mourning. Deep, deep mourning. Because it’s a dirty shame that Bullets or Ballots wasn’t made in, say, 1933 instead of 1936—before the Production Code came down.

So, for those of you who may not know, the late 1920s and early 1930s (until 1934), the “Pre-Code era,” constitutes a golden age in onscreen Hollywood decadence, as the industry was left under the lenient watch of Will Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America.

I’m not talking about a few bared ankles or some mild Victorian titillation. I’m talking topless women, copious amounts of booze and drugs, and shockingly “immoral” endings—in which criminals get away with murder and bad girls get the rich man… and his chauffeur.

More importantly, films from this period often leverage their sinful onscreen shock value to offer a more realistic, visceral portrayal of human emotions and situations. Their grittiness and maturity contrast with the predominantly escapist, candy-coated stories of classical Hollywood.

Because of the Code coming down, Edward G. Robinson can’t play an unrepentant, gutsy gangster-hero anymore. He has to play a normal protagonist masquerading as a gangster. We, the viewers, still get some of the joys of the gangster hero—but once removed from the hero.

Okay, enough cinema history. Let’s get to the hot stuff and this film which, despite being past the pre-Code expiration date, contains one of the most sizzling onscreen kisses I’ve ever seen.

So, as I’ve mentioned, Humphrey Bogart plays a vicious, up-from-the-streets baddie, Fenner, who just moved up to be number-one-man in the gang by killing his boss. He’s practically drunk on blood at this point.

Joan Blondell plays a female racketeer, a numbers-runner named Lee Morgan who had her racket taken away from her by a long-time male friend—Johnny Blake, Fenner’s chief rival in the gang.

Lee and her fellow numbers-runner, Nellie LaFleur, are dismayed to learn that they’ve been cut out of their own racket.

In the key scene with Fenner, Lee’s hurt, she’s vulnerable, and she’s out for vengeance.

Fenner happens to run across her in a hotel bar (accidentally on purpose) and they get to talking. They agree they can do best by pooling their interests: he’ll muscle in and let her keep the numbers racket, provided that she help him wipe out Blake. The dialogue snaps along, filled with a bizarre combination of sexual tension and mutual distrust.

Fenner: You don’t trust me?

Lee: I don’t trust anybody.

Fenner: Me neither. We oughta work fine together.

Finally, when she realizes that Fenner is proposing to take her former racket away from Johnny Blake, she looks Fenner straight in the eye and declares, “Well, go ahead and take it!”

And take it he does… he leans over, closer and closer. He wants to seal this deal with a kiss and Lee makes no attempt to stop him. He finally kisses her and just when we think he’s going to break away he grabs her waist and stays a bit longer! This is a very drawn-out affair.

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When Fenner finally, ahem, disengages, Lee pauses for a moment, then hauls off and slaps him so damn hard that you can see Bogie’s face flap!

If this were a pre-Code movie, these two would probably become an item and we’d get a lot more uncomfortably smoldering scenes between the wonderful performers (and real-life lovers, from what I’ve heard). Really, the whole movie would’ve been much more thrilling had it played on a love triangle between good guy Blake, bad guy Fenner, and sassy, independent Lee. Bullets or Ballots could also benefit from a few scenes of Blondell in something silky and almost absent. Just sayin’.

Personally, I think the movie smooch gets overused in big, gooey love scenes, so I really enjoy a filmic kiss that’s about something other than love. This kind of pre-noir kiss of the damned exposes the aggressive impulses that bring people to succumb to their urges. In this case, it’s about getting back at someone else, about power, about an unholy partnership. The subtext is stifling. I wish there were more scenes between Fenner and Lee. They ignite the imagination. But we can thank chief censor and morality man Joseph Ignatius “Bloody Buttinski” Breen for taking that away from us. Oh, well.

Bullets or Ballots still offers Louise Beavers in a far too small and subservient but delicious role as a fabulously stylish, opinionated Harlem numbers-runner, Nellie LaFleur—who came up with the racket in the first place. I love seeing women, especially women of color, running their own affairs and taking care of themselves in 1936!

Joan Blondell has seldom worn sexier clothes in any of her many, many sexy parts.

I also award points for a gripping shoot-out climax at the end (I won’t give it away!) that does effectively build tension and suspense with some taut intercutting… and leads to a surprising and moving dénouement.

The dialogue impresses with its snappiness, for instance:

Random gangster: I don’t like your face.

Johnny Blake: Well, I’ll be ’round tomorrow to give you a chance to rearrange it.

Robinson, surprisingly, pulls off both the charming and pugilistic sides to his disillusioned cop character—flirting with Blondell one minute, slugging a guy in the next.

The deco set designs will certain give you an eyeful of pleasure, if you, like me, dream of someday living in a Bauhaus hotel.

Ah, who am I kidding? You should see this for Bogie. Savor his magnificent performance as one smooth operator.

Whether he’s putting out a cigarette in his morning coffee or filling his enemies full of lead, you shouldn’t miss this delightfully psychopathic role from the days before Bogie’s characters acquired a sense of guilt and conscience.

Even if it’s not everything I want it to be, Bullets or Ballots holds up and serves as a masterclass in the crime genre’s iconography that carried into the New Hollywood and beyond. You haven’t really seen a movie like Mean Streets or The Godfather until you’ve seen movies like Bullets or Ballots.

Oh, and by the way, you mugs, I’m working for the #scenesofthecrime racket now, see? And if you wanna read about cool crime films, you’ll check it out, see?

Scenes of the Crime Blogathon