Chaos Is Come Again

Lon Chaney was the Man of a Thousand Faces. In his movies he invariably played the heavily made up monster and rarely could one even recognise him beneath his incredibly thick theatrical mask. He always did his own makeup, and even came up with a number of new and astonishing techniques and appliances. He was the master of disguise, quite unchallenged. Yet, however much he applied makeup he was always . . . well . . . in lack of a better word . . . human. In The Phantom of the Opera (1925) his face was made up in so grotesque and hideous a fashion that it quite broke one's heart to look at him. This wasn't the face of evil, this was what we all look like inside. Only he couldn't hide it.

The Wallace Worsley film The Penalty (1920) is quite an extraordinary movie for Chaney. In it Chaney plays a crime lord called Blizzard who controls the entire underworld of San Francisco. He wears no makeup whatsoever, which is quite interesting. The other interesting thing is that Blizzard has no legs.

As a child Blizzard was violently ill and the doctor treating him had to cut off his legs in order to save his life. This diagnosis, however, was false. Abysmally false. There was nothing wrong with Blizzard's legs at all and the child Blizzard heard this right after the operation. He was never the same again.

The utterly amazing thing is that in the movie Chaney is totally convincing as a cripple. He just has his legs bent backwards and fastened to his back, and his knees inserted in two wooden buckets. The result is stunning: both repulsive and frightening at the same time. Truly eerie.

The smaller in stature he is, the more concentrated the hatred and malice and wickedness in him. It's almost as if the doctor, when he amputated Blizzard's legs, also amputated his soul. Not a shred of goodness remains. Not the shadow of a shred.

Oh what a nasty character Blizzard is. How ill he treats women. With what ease he ends human life. It's nothing to him. Less than nothing. He's been treated wrongly so everyone else has to pay for it. Everyone with two good legs is at fault and to blame for his misery. They must pay, it's their penalty. He will be avenged, by hook or by crook.

In the movie the embittered Blizzard has a plan. He has imported thousands of unemployed ruffians to the city. They're just waiting on his word to step out. His plan is to start a number of riots in the outskirts of the city, drawing the police and the National Guard away from downtown - thus leaving the soft underbelly of the city entirely vulnerable and prey to his wicked schemes.

It's quite clear from the scenes where gloatingly he describes what havoc and chaos he will cause that he isn't interested in the material goods he'll gain. Oh no, not at all. His interest is in the chaos and misery he will create. He's bent on revenge. He's been treated shabbily, his legs have been taken from him and somebody will have to pay.

In fact everybody.

The dream scenes in which Blizzard's troops ransack the city are quite the finest and scariest I've ever seen in silent films - easily matching whatever deep disturbing horrors German expressionism manages to dish out. The joy the very thought of these images bring Blizzard! It's tangible. And in his reveries Blizzard is leading his men from the front - intact!

That's one of the reasons he wants money. He will buy himself new legs.

And, by one of these wonderful melodramatic coincidences, the very doctor who deprived Blizzard of his legs is now a renowned surgeon - who's of course been experimenting with that very thing! The replacement of limbs! So obviously Blizzard kidnaps his daughter and forces him to perform the operation and give him back his legs.

During the operation the doctor notices something extremely uncanny. Blizzard has a tumour in his brain, something that ought to have been noticed years ago. He removes it and Blizzard reverts to being a normal law-abiding citizen. All the bitterness is gone and he finds love and happiness.

This new bliss, however, will prove short-lived. Blizzard's old criminal associates are not at all happy with his new convictions as it interferes with their schemes of which the restored Blizzard wants no part. So they assassinate Blizzard.

It couldn't end any other way.

A truly powerful and shocking movie. A truly amazing performance. And it proves that Chaney really doesn't need any masks to be frightening. This man is a true wonder. He can do it with both hands behind his back. Or legs, like here.

The title of this piece is a quote from Othello. It is, in a way, singularly appropriate since there's a really dark and disturbing undercurrent of sexual jealousy and sexual aggression and even sexual hatred in the film - incredibly strong stuff.

By Jove, The Penalty really gives me the willies.

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