There's something unmistakably appealing, in an almost archeological sort of way, in watching films like the 1920 adaptation of Gouverneur Morris' novel 'The Penalty.' There is a sense of discovering history – a feeling that is enhanced when you realize you are putting a silent film in your Blu-ray player. The film itself is creeping up on the century mark, which makes the various filmmaking techniques – the static camera, the almost-pantomime acting style, the sparse dialogue given to the audience via title cards – seem positively ancient in comparison to the films of 50 years ago, let alone the kinds of movies we see today. It's all so unique and compelling, historically speaking, that one almost forgets this was once cutting-edge entertainment, featuring one of the most fascinating character actors of the time.
Of course that person is the great Lon Chaney – this time he convincingly portrays a double amputee with his remarkable physicality and the illusory effects he could muster from an ingenious use of makeup and costume. What's most notable about 'The Penalty' is that it came years before Chaney would cement himself in film lore, taking his special effects know-how and transforming himself into the likes of Quasimodo in 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' and possibly his most famous turn as the "phantom" of the Paris Opera House in the aptly titled 'The Phantom of the Opera.' Bizarrely, it was in playing the grotesque, misshapen or simply tragic figures whose lives were altered by tragedy or circumstance that Chaney found his niche. In fact it was his performance as "The Frog" in the 1919 picture 'The Miracle Man' (a glimpse of his performance can be seen in the supplements of 'The Penalty') that propelled Chaney into a career of playing such characters.
Adapted by Gouverneur Morris from his pulp novel, 'The Penalty' features Chaney in one of his most remarkably physical roles. Playing the double amputee, Blizzard, Chaney strapped both of his ankles behind his thighs and then placed his knees into oversized holsters, which created the astonishing illusion of a man who had lost both of his legs just above the knee. Chaney completely sells the transformation by walking around in his leg holsters – or "stumps" – with the aid of two crutches – the padding of which was completely worn down by the end of filming – and hoisting himself up by his arms alone. Chaney displays enormous upper-body strength, as he gracefully pulls his body up a succession of pegs to reach a window in one scene, and again by climbing two ropes up and down a secret chute in Blizzard's lair. While Chaney's trickery and physicality are both incredibly impressive, he is also quite adept at conveying the bitter madness Blizzard is driven to as a result of his condition – which is expressed in both his ruthlessness and his insane plot for revenge.
Directed by Wallace Worsely ('The Hunchback of Notre Dame'), 'The Penalty' begins with a fledgling surgeon, Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary,) mistakenly amputating both legs of a young accident victim. Though Ferris' mentor agrees to help cover up his astronomical mistake, the young boy catches wind that his legs are missing due to gross negligence, and in that moment, a monster is born. Flash forward 27 years and the young boy is now Blizzard, criminal mastermind and ruler of the San Francisco underworld. When he's not taunting police officers while helping members of his gang evade capture, Blizzard is hard at work crafting a plan that will not only terrorize the city of San Francisco, but also afford him the revenge he's waited nearly three decades to bring to fruition.
After one of Blizzard's cronies, Frisco Pete (Jim "James" Mason), knifes a woman named Barbary Nell (Doris Pawn), Blizzard's gang becomes the target of a Federal Secret Service Officer named Lichtenstein (Milton Ross), who sends in Rose (Ethel Grey Terry) "his most daring operative" to get to the bottom of Blizzard's plan. At this point, the film's plot bifurcates into what Blizzard has in store for the city, concerning a stockpile of weapons and women making straw hats, and him posing for a young sculptress' interpretation of Satan. As luck would have it, the artist happens to be Barbara Ferris (Claire Adams), daughter of Dr. Ferris, the very man who took Blizzard's legs.
As both plot lines work toward resolution, 'The Penalty' begins to utilize the allegorical nature of Blizzard posing as Satan, and his own devilish designs for revenge and power. At one point, Blizzard even exclaims, "When Satan fell from heaven, he looked for power in hell," in case audiences weren't quite getting the correlation. As somewhat stilted as the dialogue would seem to modern audiences, there's no denying that Chaney's silent performance more than illustrates exactly what his character's intentions and motivations are. Perched atop a small platform, Blizzard grins menacingly while Barbara turns a lump of clay into an eerie, horned representation of the criminal's visage. But there's something sorrowful lurking behind all of that bitterness, those bare-toothed expressions and trembling clenched fists, that causes Blizzard's journey to take an unexpected turn during the film's surprisingly tense final act.
As far as film villains go, you'd be hard pressed to find one more unique than Chaney's Blizzard. Bitter, hate-filled and with machinations that take a simple crime thriller and turn it into a potentially gruesome tale about a man virtually consumed with thoughts of revenge and a lust for power. To that end, 'The Penalty' is surprisingly captivating – being that you're never quite sure just how far the film will take things once Blizzard gains the upper hand. Addiitonally, Worsely's clever, sometimes suggestive direction and the emotive cinematography by Dan Short combine to create a rather compelling, if somewhat overly symbolic feature that still manages to be an entertaining film by today's standards. For those familiar with his later work that would make him a legend, 'The Penalty' stands as a remarkable accomplishment for Chaney's imagination and skill as both an actor and special effects guru.
Besides Lon Chaney, the biggest draw of Kino Lorber's release of 'The Penalty' on Blu-ray is seeing just how well the film has withstood the passage of time. As noted, this is a 35mm archival restoration from the collection of the George Eastman House. The short of it is: The picture looks simply amazing for its age. Dust and scratches that illustrate the overall age of the print are evident, but they only serve to enhance the look; it's beautifully grainy and remarkably filmic. The aging that is present never detracts from the overall quality of the picture, and even in scenes where time has left its indelible mark, an amazing amount of detail remains. Fine detail is present everywhere, from the actor's faces to the stitching of their clothing; it's remarkable how much detail was captured with such early camera and lighting equipment. Facial features are fantastic – especially augmented through the powdery makeup on the face of the actors that is very noticeable on this transfer.
To Kino's credit, the 1080p/AVC transfer is free of digital clean up that might have sullied the picture for some purists. After all the point of watching this archival transfer is to see it in all its aged glory. But like the audio, the picture has benefited from some modern technological advances. The image has been tinted in several scenes with a blue, sepia or purplish hue that is in keeping with the original print's specifications. Though surprising at first, it actually enhances the mood of several scenes in a unexpectedly subtle way.
Beyond the additional tinted flourishes, however, 'The Penalty' looks remarkably good. Black levels are solid throughout, creating a steady sense of depth while contrast levels are high. Keeping the grayscale consistent can make or break a film shot in black and white, and all tinting aside, the picture here rarely falters when it comes to even tones across the scale. For a film that's survived this long, the picture quality of 'The Penalty' holds up remarkably well for its age.
The audio on 'The Penalty' comes in two flavors, The Mont Alto Orchestra DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and The Mont Alto Orchestra 2.0 LPCM. For the purpose of this review, the DTS-HD track was chosen and it certainly doesn't disappoint. A subtly layered effort, the new musical mix envelops the listener with a sound quality that belies the age of the film – but in only the best possible way. While most of the orchestral sound and piano elements are pushed through the front channels, the lossless track will occasionally send certain elements through to the rear channels for added effect. The result is astonishing musical clarity that accompanies the onscreen images and action quite well.
There is little to no LFE to speak of, but that's more a result of the musical choices made for the film than anything else. As far as Blu-rays with neither dialogue nor sound effects go, 'The Penalty' still holds up remarkably well in the audio department.
The disc also boasts the short theatrical trailers for two of Chaney's crime pictures.
There is an audience out there who will have a true reverence for the work that was put into 'The Penalty,' and for what that effort means to the film industry of today. It can be difficult for some moviegoers to get past the style – especially the silence – of the times, but there are those who can take themselves out of the role of modern moviegoer and appreciate this film for what it say about its era, and for what it meant to audiences in 1920. Watching 'The Penalty' on Blu-ray, with its image radiating from a large high-definition television and the orchestral sound emanating from a 5.1 speaker system, an anachronous feeling suddenly washes over you. There is a true sense of history in watching a picture that has existed for so long; a lifetime, in fact, before many who read this review were even a glimmer in their dear ol' dad's eye. Though it's dated (yes, 92 years qualifies as dated), 'The Penalty' is a film that goes beyond being simply old; it is a valued piece of filmmaking that should be viewed as historically significant in terms of special effects, story and film techniques, as well as for the archival process that has kept the picture largely pristine and transferable, so that it may once more be enjoyed and more widely shared on this new medium.