The Penalty (1920): Breakdown by The Hestinator (Brandon)
[THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THEIR BADASSITUDE]
Ethel Grey Terry as Rose
What’s this? A pulpy silent mob movie with a woman as the lead hero? You better believe it! You see, Rose is one of the feds’ top undercover agents, and she’s tasked with infiltrating the bad guy’s den of sin to figure out just what his deal is. The motion picture builds her up as fearless and competent, but she has a tendency to leave evidence of her snooping at the sites she’s investigating. Her character sort of suffers the longer the film goes on, but her appearance is surprisingly feministic in its early showings. She reports to the cigar-chomping federal police officer Lichtenstein (Milton Ross).
Charles Clary as Dr. Ferris
World’s worst doctor. Calling this clown a “hero” is a bit of a stretch, as, in his early days as a physician, Dr. Ferris (as in the wheel) sawed off both of a child’s legs for having a head contusion. He gets a bit cleverer as The Penalty goes on, but come on, man. He also thinks that his daughter’s – Barbara Ferris (Claire Adams) – career as an artist is a bunch of bullshit, preferring that she get a real job/husband.
THE BAD GUY:
Lon Chaney as Blizzard
Hell yeah! Now we’re talking! One of the first great tough guy actors in cinema history, Lon Chaney (the Man of a Thousand Faces), plays a legless mobster who goes by the nickname “Blizzard.” To play a double amputee, Chaney performed in a special leg harness that tucked his lower legs behind his upper legs, allowing him to walk around on his knees. This damaged Chaney’s knee muscles for the rest of his cut-short life. Tragically, Lon would die of throat cancer and eating artificial snow in 1930 at age 47. It’s a crying shame that this badass was robbed of more movie appearances. Chaney’s performance in The Penalty is one of the very best of the silent era. His tortured, agonized sneers are unforgettable. He would later return to missing-two-limbs territory in The Unknown (1927), where he played a circus knife-thrower without either arm. Is there anything he couldn’t do?
[THE SEX AND VIOLENCE]
DUDESWEAT AND MACHISMO:
Lon Chaney’s character, Blizzard, has a thing for man-legs. He loves man-legs. Having no lower legs himself, Blizzard likes to verbally compliment dudes on their walking limbs. Blizzard briefly rides a fireman’s pole and a fight between two guys in an alley looks like they’re trying to dry-hump each other.
EXPLOITATION AND MISOGYNY:
Blizzard keeps a small army of woman in his house to serve as hat-makers/sex slaves. If you try to escape from his liar, you get the knife. Blizzard has a bizarre sex act he plays with his gals where he plays the keys of a piano and the female works the pedals with her hands. It’s kinda creepy. If nudity is your thing, we see the bare ass of a female model in an art studio. Cheers.
MURDER BY NUMBERS: [ 5 ]
The body count for The Penalty isn’t too high, with five souls being extinguished. One of Blizzard’s former hookers – Barbary Nell (Doris Pawn) – is stabbed by jittery, drug-addicted mob enforcer Frisco Pete (Jim Mason) in a dancehall. Later, Frisco Pete knifes a federal agent in a back alley after a short scuffle. Two cops are shot by anarchist/communist insurgents during a fantasy sequence where Blizzard outlines his plan to wreak havoc on San Francisco. The fifth, and final, kill goes to Frisco Pete again, but I won’t spoil the nature of it. The violence is all bloodless, so gorehounds better beware.
MOST SATISFYING ASS-KICKING AND/OR DEATH:
To be honest, as great as this flick is, none of the death scenes are really that spectacular. However, for this category, I’ll go with Barbary Nell biting the dust at the hands of Frisco Pete in a dancehall/saloon. She just wants to turn her tricks independently of Blizzard, when that vile dope fiend shows up and gives her the blade through his overcoat (not sure why he doesn’t just take it out of his pocket). It sets a grim, nasty tone for the rest of the crime-thriller to follow.
[THE BEST OF THE REST]
Blizzard’s Plan to Pillage
Interestingly, the best action scene in The Penalty never really takes place. Blizzard’s secret plan of vengeance is to unleash a crime wave in San Francisco with an army of foreign-born “Reds,” allowing him to move against the banks in the inner city. This plot, which starts with a big explosion somewhere in the city, is shown in a fantasy montage. Swarms of bad guys, wearing the hats that Lon Chaney’s sex slaves were manufacturing, take to the streets, lighting fires and murdering at least two police officers. This sequence is notable for actually showing Chaney orchestrating the mayhem, while having a full set of legs. This violence is never actually unfurled, but it is a cool part of the movie.
After harassing some of his female hat-makers, Lon Chaney turns to them before leaving and informs them that one of their flock has gone to the Big Brothel in the Sky.
Blizzard (Lon Chaney): “By the way, Barbary Nell, who strayed from us, now sleeps on a marble slab – – – – in the morgue!”
The Penalty is one of the very best movies of the silent era. This macabre gangster tale is so lurid and morbid that it often gets categorized as a horror film. I love it, but I wouldn’t classify it as one. It’s definitely no action movie, or even action-adjacent, but it’s such an important building block of Badass Cinema that it requires an Action Movie Breakdown. This was the breakout role for iconic screen star Lon Chaney, although he had previously attracted a great deal of attention for his role in The Miracle Man (1919), a flick that now considered mostly lost. Chaney would make a career playing grotesque, haunting figures.
While there’s limited physical action here, this picture makes up for it with thick atmosphere. The San Francisco criminal underworld is wonderfully captured here. The locations are often grimy and seedy, and the violence can come from anywhere. One of the most remarkable sets is Chaney’s character’s underground liar, which is complete with an arsenal, a fully-equipped operating room, and what appears to be a mine of some kind (this one isn’t really explained in the runtime).
The Penalty is deliciously pulpy, being based on a pulp novel of the same title from 1913 written by Gouverneur Morris (not the American Founding Father). Hollywood would later try to recapture the magic of this movie by making another starring Chaney, directed by Wallace Worsley, and based on a Morris pulp novel (The Purple Mask). The result was the film The Ace of Hearts (1921), about a secret society of assassins. It’s a good movie, to be sure, but The Penalty, it ain’t.
This flick taps into the United States’ fear of anarchism/communism, the labor movement, and foreigners/immigrants at the time of its release. This was the time of the First Red Scare, after all. In fact, the same year as The Penalty was released (1920), there was a massive bombing done by anarchists on Wall Street in New York City that resulted in 40 fatalities. The far-left was certainly on many Americans’ minds during this period.
Anchored by a twisted, sadomasochistic performance by Lon Chaney that’s so intense that it practically burns holes in the film, The Penalty is essential viewing for fans of ancient Badass Cinema. Overall, I’d give it an eight-outta-ten, because it kinda fails to stick the landing. The ending, which I won’t spoil here, concludes on a preposterous note that will have you scratching your head. It’s definitely not enough to sink the entire production, but it is weird, and not in a good way. Still, please watch this one.
[THE MORAL OF THE STORY]
For the love of all things holy, don’t amputate both of a child’s legs for having a bruise on his head!
[THE AOBG ACTION CHECKLIST]
 Athlete(s) Turned “Actor”
 Clinging To The Outside Of A Moving Vehicle
 Crotch Attack
[X] Dialogue Telling Us How Bad-Ass The Main Character(s) Is/Are
 Ending Featuring An Ambulance, A Blanket, Or A Towel
[X] Giant Explosions
 Heavy Artillery
 Improvised Weapon(s)
 Macho Mode(s) Of Transportation
 Main Character Sports Facial Accessory(s)
 Manly Embrace(s)
 Notorious Stunt-Man Sighting
[X] Passage(s) Of Time Via Montage
[X] Politically Fueled Plot Point(s)
[X] Senseless Destruction Of Property
 Shoot-Out(s) and/or Sword Fight(s)
 Slow-Motion Finishing Move(s)/Death(s)
 Stupid Authoritative Figures
[X] Substance Usage and/or Abuse
 Torture Sequence(s)
 Unnecessary Sequel
 Vehicle Chase(s)
 Vigilante Justice