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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As he reads this ad, Blizzard does look positively diabolical.
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.
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!
“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.
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.
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.
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.
Prostitutes ply their trade in the Barbary Coast… and get into trouble.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Blizzard is not exactly a one-woman man…
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.
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!
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?
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.
(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.)
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!