Of the five silent films director Wallace Worsley and actor (and famed “man of a thousand faces”) Lon Chaney made together, they are perhaps best remembered for the last, 1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. However, the first, The Penalty (1920), finds both filmmakers at their delirious best. Thanks to Kino Classics, this twisted tale of revenge and ultimate redemption is now available in a stunning Blu-ray edition.
With a scenario by Charles Kenyon based on the novel by Gouverneur Morris (the great-grandson of the Founding Father of the same name), The Penalty begins just after an adolescent boy has had both of his legs unnecessarily amputated by an overzealous young surgeon following a traffic accident. Twenty years later, the boy has grown into a self-styled pianist and the master of the criminal underworld, Blizzard (Chaney), and has concocted a convoluted plan to force the guilty surgeon, Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary), to surgically graft another man’s legs onto his body, after which he’ll walk tall and proud as he leads an army of “foreign malcontents” in the plunder of San Francisco. In order to bend Ferris to his will, however, Blizzard must first manipulate the doctor’s daughter, the amateur sculptress Barbara (Claire Adams), and so he begins spending his days posing for her statue of “Satan After the Fall.”
Meanwhile, Blizzard’s criminal operation is infiltrated by crack secret service investigator Rose (Ethel Grey Terry), who winds up falling for Blizzard, only to be rebuffed as he professes his love for Barbara, who in turn is engaged to Dr. Wilmot Allen (Kenneth Harlan), whose legs Blizzard desires for his own. Indeed, Kenyon’s feverish scenario proves a wellspring of unexpected twists and turns, and Worsley appears to have embraced the story with glee, skillfully employing an impressively well-rounded and mature bag of directorial techniques. The director covers his scenes with a variety of shot distances — including an expert use of extreme close-ups of objects such as knives and guns for just the right dash of suspense — and an acute understanding of the 180-degree rule (especially evident in shot-reverse-shot “dialogue” scenes). Furthermore, Worsley embraces an editorial style of cutting between simultaneous actions, allowing the separate scenes to comment on one another, and he even reveals Blizzard’s criminal ambitions with a daring “flash forward.”
Matching Worsley’s verve shot for shot is the work of director of photography Don Short, ASC. The cinematographer makes great use of available light in the film’s exteriors to establish an atmosphere of villainy and intrigue, while interiors are lit with a hard-light style that creates a rich balance between shadows and highlights. Short’s framing is also expert, as he demonstrates a deep-focus aesthetic that perfectly complements Worsley’s staging of the actors at varying distances from the camera. (Gilbert White’s art direction is equally inspired, particularly inside of Blizzard’s home — which doubles as the headquarters of his criminal empire — where pegs allow the double-amputee to scale a wall, a fireman’s pole grants him easy transit from his piano room to the chamber where he meets with his goons, and a fireplace gives way to a chain ladder that leads to a subterranean passage lined with a holding pen, armory and operating room.)
Kino’s Blu-ray, which has been mastered in high definition from the 35mm elements that resulted from the George Eastman House’s restoration of the film, brilliantly captures the subtleties of Short’s cinematography. The image appears crisp and pristine throughout, with remarkably consistent density and a nuanced grayscale. This home-video release also incorporates the occasional color tinting which, according to Kino, was done “according to the surviving instructions.” The audio tracks are given to a score performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, whose work also graces Kino’s recent release of Les Vampires; according to a credit after the film, the music here was “compiled from historic photoplay music.”
Anchoring the film, of course, is Chaney’s performance as Blizzard. The actor famously strapped his lower legs behind his thighs and nimbly maneuvered on his knees to convincingly play the part of the double-amputee, and he applied years of stage-makeup experience to subtly enhance his own facial features, resulting in Blizzard’s deeply creased and expressive mug. Chaney’s makeup tricks are explored in the nine-and-a-half-minute “Chaney’s Secrets Revealed,” in which makeup artist and Chaney expert Michael F. Blake leads a “video tour” through Chaney’s original makeup cases and offers a close-up look at the actor’s costume from The Penalty.
Rounding out the special features are By the Sun’s Rays, an un-credited (although IMDB lists Charles Giblyn as director) 1914 one-reel Western that features Chaney as the conniving clerk of a gold interest; a bizarrely narrated collection of the two-and-a-half minutes of surviving footage from George Loane Tucker’s 1919 feature The Miracle Man, which offered Chaney one of his first critically acclaimed screen roles; and a short theatrical trailer each for Tod Browning’s The Big City (1928) and Jack Conway’s While the City Sleeps (1928). These special features all appeared on Kino’s previous DVD release of the film and are welcome additions here, but it’s disappointing to see that the essays that accompanied the earlier release were left off of the Blu-ray update. Additionally, each of the special features that are included would benefit from a bit more context and explanation as to why it made the cut. For example, the inclusion of By the Sun’s Rays begs the question: Why this short movie out of the more than 150 films in which Chaney appeared?