warren oates wrote:
. So other than the OTT story, is there much to recommend in this one? As far as silent directors go, can this guy compare to the best of them?
In my opinion, it's Chaney's best film. Elsewhere, I wrote:
To this day The Penalty is one of the most wicked, blackhearted, nasty films I've ever seen. . . featuring what is far over and above anything else my favorite performance by Lon Chaney Sr. The man delivers, in what is considered his first starring role, a positively ferocious performance as Blizzard, "Lord and master of the Underworld." In my opinion he never surpassed it.
In my opinion this is the first genuine Film Noir, in the true sense of the word. The film is gritty, nasty, filled with utterly vicious characters without even a touch of a hint of redeeming qualities, with a narrative heart that pumps black blood through the life of its thru-line fore and aft. Featuring onscreen nudity, drug-addiction, accidental amputation of an innocent pre-teen boy's (Blizzard's) legs by an inept idiotic doctor (who is protected by an even more idiotic older doctor who shields his young protoge by lying to the kid's parents and tells them that the uneccessary amputation was the only way the boy's life could've been saved), burlesque dancers shaking their tits, a female hustler robbing a mark she's conked out with knock-out drops in his beer, a slimy coke addict who glady stabs her, an undercover law enforcement agent who completely wilts in the face of the ferocious power of her target and becomes his willing plaything, this for starters... moving forward with satanistic flourishes and "underworld" metaphors it smokes along like a belch from a fumarole. The film was thusly described by a trade paper of the day who, while granting the excellence of its craft, croaked "Here is a picture about as cheerful as a hanging." Often confused as a Browning-Chaney film, owing to it's lurid nature and seedy subject matter, the film is far more sinister and dark than anything in the Chaney-Browning canon.
Here are some quotes, including the aforementioned:
Here is a picture that is about as cheerful as a hanging---and as interesting. You can't, being an average human and normal as to your emotional reactions, really like THE PENALTY, any more than you could enjoy a hanging. But for all its gruesome detail you are quite certain to be interested in it...It is a remarkably good performance this actor (Chaney) gives." ---Photoplay
"One of the striking things about the picture is the remarkable characterization given by Lon Chaney, who has the leading character...Rarely has the screen seen a better piece of acting." - --Moving Picture World
I love this film and could go on and on. Chaney is truly unbelievable in the film. He plays Blizzard... the legless young boy who has grown up into a truly sinister head of the San Francisco underworld, hobbling around on stumps through the streets between HQ's with the aid of leather knee-cups and a pair of crutches. The film is devoted to Blizzards plan to wreak vengeance on the (now elder) doctor who destroyed him when a child. He lights on a plan to shatter the doctor's world by hitting him where it will hurt the most-- the doc's saughter. The daughter, an aspiring artist who wants to do something worthwhile with her life before going passively into a marriage, puts an ad in the papers for a model. . . and ad with Chaney answers with sinister glee.
Watch closely as Chaney hatches the plan in his head to pose for the daughter--a sculptress-- of the jerk doctor who ruined him and left him legless from the knees down as a boy... she has placed an ad in the paper for people who think they look appropriate to pose for a work called "Satan After The Fall." Watch his face run the gauntlet of expressions as he ruminates on his deviousness, picturing his ultimate ruination of the daughter, smiling, gritting his teeth with wide-eyed sinister exhultation, then suddenly subject to a torrent of agony as he recalls all the misery he has suffered and continues to suffer as a result of his (unneccessary) life as a double-amputee whereby he smashes a hand against his temple and drags a palm up and down his countenance almost unable to bear the pain... trying to get under control he throws a tightclenched fist out and grimaces sternly while regaining himself. . . study the screen-- a tear jumps out of his eye and runs down his face as a riot of subtle and conflicting emotions crash through his mind's eye.
It should also be noted that the director of The Penalty was Wallace Worsely, who directed Chaney in Hunchback (as well as The Ace of Hearts, included in the TCM Lon Chaney Vol 1 box).
regarding 'Penalty', and both Chaney's performance in the film and his rivetting, charismatic, screen presence here.
Chaney was actually one of my earliest favourite movie stars, because RTE used to screen a lot of classic silent movies in its early days (early to mid 1960s); Chaney was, of course, memorable because of his Phantom persona but he'd a cruelly handsome features, in the manner of Lawrence Tierney, which deserved more exposure