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Blu-ray Review: The Penalty (1920)

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The Film

Don’t know what the widespread acclaim of Lon Chaney is all about? Look no further than The Penalty, a 1920 masterpiece of silent gangster cinema in which Chaney binds his legs behind his body to portray a legless criminal mastermind. Chaney’s physical commitment to his roles is astonishing — he would perform an opposite feat seven years later in The Unknown, starring as an armless circus knife thrower — but this is no mere physical stunt.

The PenaltyChaney’s intensity courses through his entire performance in a terrifying and haunting representation of loss and raw anger. He’s a primal scream personified, and his utterly chilling turn can’t be forgotten, despite an ill-conceived ending that attempts to assuage and reassure viewers with an eleventh-hour reversal.

Chaney stars as Blizzard, a crime lord who rules the underground of San Francisco and seethes over the loss of his legs in childhood. A prologue reveals his legs were amputated by mistake — a devastating mix-up that the doctors agree to keep quiet, unaware that the poor boy is awake and has heard everything.

Fueled by an ever-mounting sense of rage, Blizzard plans a two-pronged revenge scheme. On the large scale, he plans to take over the city using a band of murderers and thieves he’s been quietly amassing. On a more personal note, he hopes to ruin the responsible doctor’s life, finding an in via his artist daughter (Claire Adams), who needs a model to portray Satan for her new sculpture project.

Chaney is an absolute force of nature, giving us a character that is bitterly cynical, maniacally evil, and deeply wounded. He’s simultaneously snarling and vulnerable — a quality most apparent in his interactions with Adams’ sculptor and Ethel Grey Terry’s undercover cop, who begins to fall for Blizzard despite her duty.

Wallace Worsley’s direction wisely veers toward Chaney’s inner torment, rather than the intriguing but somewhat stock gangster film elements. This is a fully formed portrait of evil, rich with nuance and well aware of the deep-seated pain that often precedes it. Forget what the ending says; that’s really what The Penalty is all about.

The Blu-ray Disc

Kino grants The Penalty a 1080p high definition transfer in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Sourced from a restoration by the George Eastman House, this is a truly breathtaking transfer that doesn’t require most of the caveats one tends to expect with a film of this age. The materials are in nearly pristine condition, with only minor scratches and damage popping up. Image clarity is stunningly robust and fine detail is abundant in the sharp, clean images, which look great both in black-and-white and the variety of tints.

Audio is a crisp 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio presentation of a Mont Alto Orchestra score. A 2.0 stereo option is also included.

Special Features

A 10-minute featurette takes us through some Chaney memorabilia, including the elaborate and painful Blizzard costume. A few minutes of Chaney’s 1919 film The Miracle Man offers the only surviving footage of the film, while we get the entirety of a one-reel 1914 western By the Sun’s Rays, which is badly degraded and barely watchable. Trailers for a couple of other Chaney pictures are also included.

The Bottom Line

A shockingly beautiful transfer makes The Penalty a must-own on Blu-ray. Let’s hope many more Chaneys are coming to the format soon.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.