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Kino on Video presents
"Before I am through with her and her father, they'll think I'm the devil himself."
DVD ReviewLon Chaney Sr. was quite rightfully well known for his makeups and often tortorous costumes that he used to depict a wide variety of characters, deformed and otherwise. But few of his film getups were as painful as the double-amputee costume he wore as crime lord Blizzard in The Penalty. Without the benefit of CGI, he believably portrays a legless man and amazes with the agility and strength that he displays in the role.
Blizzard had both legs amputated needlessly when a boy, after being injured in a traffic accident. He has used his fury over the intervening 27 years to rise to the status of crime boss of San Francisco, with his fingers in every dirty pie and a third of the police on his payroll. Secret Service agent Lichtenstein (Milton Ross) is puzzled by Blizzard's sudden manufacture of hundreds of straw hats by the women he controls, as well as the importation of foreign workers. He sends Rose (Ethel Grey Terry), his bravest agent, into the Blizzard's den to find out what's happening. At the same time, Barbara (Claire Adams), the sculptress daughter of Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary), who did the amputation, advertises for a model for a bust of Satan. Blizzard arranges to be the model, and begins to set in motion his scheme for revenge. At the same time, he is plotting a crime that will rock the city to its foundations.
In 1920, one must recall, the country had just undergone the notorious Palmer Raids, and Red scares were everywhere in the air. The filmmakers thus deepened the evil of Blizzard by making his plot against the city part of a Communist-anarchist uprising. While it's pretty plain that Blizzard himself has no particular politics beyond that of power, he's certainly not above using whatever means are necessary. Another artifact of the time is the surprising frankness that this picture displays. Not for almost another fifty years would we see nudity, drug use, prostitution and unpunished cold-blooded murder on the screen. Within two years the Arbuckle-Rappe scandal had caused Hollywood to censor itself by submitting films to the Hays office. Practically nothing would have been left of this picture if it were made in 1922.
If it weren't for Chaney, this movie would be forgotten today, quite deservedly. The other characters are unnatural and events happen without logic or motive, seemingly only to advance the plot. But Chaney provides a masterful performance, and that is not solely attributable to the stump apparatus that he wears. He has a magnetism and presence that overpowers everything else in the movie. Even though his crime scheme is utterly crazy, he relates it with such mania and determination that he nearly makes it convincing. He doesn't portray Blizzard as completely inhuman, however, for the crime lord, like Erik, the Phantom of the Opera, five years later, has a soft spot for music and lets Rose live even after he discovers her betrayal, mainly because she is so good at pedalling the piano while he plays! The rest of the cast is hardly worth noticing; they don't put much of any effort into their performances, though James Mason (not that James Mason) as junkie/murderer/thief Frisco Pete has a few delightfully twitchy moments.
The Penalty was directed by Wallace Worsley, who would go on to direct Chaney in A Blind Bargain (now sadly lost) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Although not displaying a great deal of creativity with the camera here, he does use brisk editing to keep the story moving along without undue delay. It is intriguing to conjecture what The Penalty might have been like if Tod Browning, a frequent Chaney collaborator, had directed. The character of Blizzard and the bizarre schemes featured seem tailor-made for Browning's dark sensibilities.
Kino's choice of music is sadly not appropriate to the film. While I don't need direct Mickey Mousing in my silent film scores, it would be useful for them to not be at complete odds with the picture. For instance, in one of the climactic scenes as Blizzard attacks Barbara in her studio, the score sounds like that of a bumptious slapstick comedy. Michael Polher's music is occasionally moody and effective, such as for the main titles, but it's definitely not right for the greater portion of the film. As is usual for Kino, the picture is run at the appropriate speed and not at sound speed.
Most of the style points are for Chaney; everything else just drags the grade down.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B-
Image Transfer Review: Except for a few moments of decomposition and a couple scratches, this looks exceptionally good. Blacks are rich and contrasts are not too high. A few segments look a little dupey (possibly inserted from another print?), but otherwise there is plenty of crisp detail. Subtle color tinting is used, and it's not distracting. There are of course the speckles and flickers to be expected on a movie that's 80 years old, but I'm very pleased with this image.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: As noted above, the 2.0 mono music track is problematic. There are occasional sound effects (mainly gun shots), but they're not overused or obnoxious. The sound of the music is good, lacking hiss or extraneous noise. It sounds fine, it's just not right for the movie as it's used.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Big City and While the City Sleeps
An unlooked-for extra is yet another Chaney movie, the one-reel Universal Western By the Sun's Rays (1914). Chaney would play the heavy in such pictures on a near-fortnightly basis through much of the 1910s, as Universal ground out material for the cinemas as fast as possible. While not any great artistic achievement, this is notable as the earliest significant Chaney role that still survives. Briefly, whenever a Colorado mine sends out shipments of gold, they are continually being intercepted by a band of robbers. Chaney stars as Frank Lawler, the clerk for the mine who is tipping off the bandoleros. In generally good condition, the film does have a few illegible intertitles. A removable subtitle for these would have been nice. However, enough are readable so that the story can be followed without difficulty.
Not enough Chaney? Okay, then how about all that survives of the footage from The Miracle Man (1919), the picture that really made Chaney a star? While I've seen the famous healing sequence from this picture before, there are a few other fragments here that are new to me. These bits survive only because they were part of an early 1930s Paramount newsreel, Movie Memories. That newsreel segment is presented here intact, complete with the period voiceover. Trailers from two MGM Chaney crime melodramas of 1928, The Big City and While the City Sleeps are featured; neither contains any footage of the movie but places all its emphasis on Chaney himself.
Back to extras relating to the main feature. There is a comparison of the scene where Blizzard attacks Barbara in her studio. The corresponding segment of the novel is included, then for comparison the shooting script sequence, and then finally the segment from the finished film. Unfortunately, something went wrong in the mastering process because the film clip has the soundtrack to the Natural History Museum featurette attached to it. That's not any more inappropriate than the score, however, so I'll let it slide. I'm more irritated with the use of a typewriter font for the novel and screenplay segments, since this is not easily readable on a television screen. Also included is a copy of the production budget for The Penalty. This is an interesting little tidbit, though a commentary on it or even a few notes would have increased its worth. Last but not least is a set of 20 stills, plus an advertising piece for the picture. One of the stills is all that remains of a deleted sequence from the film. All in all, a super package of extras that makes this disc worth owning.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsA classic portrayal by Chaney of a deformed criminal, given a nice transfer and a dandy set of extras. The main problem is the inapropos score. Well worth an addition to any silent film library.
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