Sunday, June 16, 2013

Silent Sundays: The Penalty (1920)



“When Satan fell from Heaven he looked for power in Hell.”

            The Penalty takes the gangster storyline and mixes it with a plot of revenge.  
            Dr. Ferris has amputated the legs of a young boy who suffered an accident. Another older doctor said that the boys legs did not need to be amputated. Dr. Ferris made a mistake and the older doctor covers for him. The boy overhears the doctors and he tries to tell his parents but the doctors tell the parents that the boy is just groggy from the surgery. Twenty-seven years later the boy becomes a man called Blizzard (Lon Chaney). He has become head of the criminal underworld.
            A man named Lichtenstein is head of a federal task force. He has an assignment for his operative Rose but he hopes that she turns it down because it is so dangerous. The task has to do with Blizzard. Rose says she can get the criminal for murder, theft, and arson but his people in the underworld would still go on with his work. Lichtenstein has found out that Blizzard is making dancehall girls make hats and he wants to know why. Rose’s task is to find out what Blizzard has planned with the hats.
            Dr. Ferris has become a famous surgeon. Blizzard has people working for the doctor watching his every move. Ferris has a daughter named Barbara who is an artist.
            Rose has been working with Blizzard for a week and has learned nothing. He keeps the plans to himself. One day he wonders why Rose is not afraid of him. She replies that he plays the piano so beautifully she cannot be afraid.
            Barbara puts an ad in the paper for a model who looks like Satan for a group of sculptures she wants to make. Blizzard has one of his men make sure that he is the only one who shows up the following day. Barbara is friends with a kid from the streets who tells her that Blizzard is not a good man to have around.
            While Blizzard is out, Rose sneaks down into his secret passage. She finds a full operating room down there. When he comes back he sees a drawer in his desk was broken into and a clip inside. He goes to the entrance of the passage way at the fireplace and sees something is missing. Blizzard looks in on his shop and calls for Rose. He was going to kill her but she helped him play a beautiful song. Rose writes a letter to Lichtenstein about what she found. Before she gives it to an inside man she hesitates because it would mean the end of Blizzard. Rose does drop it to the person. The person is then strangled by one of Blizzard’s men before he gets to end of the alleyway.
            Rose finds out that Blizzard’s second hand man and lawyer has come into town. Blizzard tells this man his plan: he wants several of his men to rob banks and create chaos in the city. The hats are for the men so that their descriptions will all be the same and no one can be singled out when the people are describing them to the police. This chaos will cause the police to be scattered and allow him to loot the city.
            Blizzard eventually gets the doctor to come to his place. He wants Ferris to take the legs of Barbara’s boyfriend and graft them on to his. The doctor thinks Blizzard is insane but agrees to perform surgery. The surgery he performs is not on Blizzard’s legs but his head. In his initial accident Blizzard suffered a concussion at the base of his skull. That concussion went untreated and over the years created pressure on his brain that made him act like a mad man.
            Rose falls in love with Blizzard and is happy that he is better and normal. But their happiness together is short lived. Blizzard dies not long after.

            The Penalty was pretty good. I would have liked it if Blizzard had just stayed bad and had not been redeemed in the end. Lon Chaney made a great bad guy. The man was a true genius at showing emotion through his many faces. He can be sinister and menacing one minute and gentle and sensitive the next. I can see the part of the story where Blizzard wants to distract the law enforcement in the city and loot it being done today. The Dark Knight Rises seems to have used a bit of this when Bane took over (maybe… possibly… I’m not sure it has been a while since I have seen The Dark Knight Rises). The Penalty is one of the better silent films I have seen. It is worth seeing at least once.