Cinema from Kino: THE PENALTY (1920)

Lon Chaney, you guys.  Lon.  Chaney.  I mean…I just…WOW.  THE PENALTY from Kino Lorber is my first experience with The Man of a Thousand Faces and I am ready for my fan girl kit.

Spoiler Warning Ahoy!  In order to have a discussion about this film I will be talking about some major plot points but not the ending.  It goes without saying, spoilers ahead!

A young and relatively inexperienced new surgeon by the name of Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary), has just completed his first big operation.  Unfortunately, he has not done as well as he would have liked.  His patient, a young boy who had been run over, was suffering from badly injured legs and a contusion to the back of his head. Ferris has hastily amputated both of his legs.  When his more seasoned colleague arrives, Ferris learns that he has made a terrible mistake and never should have cut off the boy’s legs.  The two doctors are discussing what they should do when the boy’s parents come in.  They rush to comfort their son while the doctors inform them that the boy’s legs had to go in order to save his life.  At this moment their patient speaks up, unbeknownst to the doctors he was awake and overheard their entire conversation.  He knows perfectly well that he did not need to lose his legs.  The doctors tell the parents that the child is hallucinating because of the ether and prepare to move on with their lives.

Twenty-seven years later and the boy has grown into a man, a terrible man driven by anger and a thirst for revenge.  Blizzard (Lon Chaney) is the kingpin of the underworld and he rules with an iron fist.  He has sent out one of his junkie underlings to a dance hall where a prostitute is stealing a drunken man’s wallet.  When she rounds the corner the junkie grabs her, a brief look of terror and recognition crosses her face before the knife pierces her side.  She falls, hanging limply from the balcony as the patrons below scream in horror before taking off after the assailant.  The junkie manages to elude his captors and finds his way back to Blizzard where he receives drugs in payment for his services.

The Secret Service is concerned with Blizzard and his criminal operations, but they are even more concerned lately as all Blizzard’s dancing girls have been recalled and are hard at work day and night making straw hats.  The only girls who escape the work room are the ones who are used as Blizzard’s mistresses and pedal pushers.  Blizzard is a man of contrasts and has a passion for the piano.  He plays the keys while the women work the pedals for as long as they please him with both their pedal work and other things.  The head of the Secret Service, Lichtenstein (Milton Ross), has decided to send an agent into Blizzard’s workshop to discover the truth of what he is planning.  His most daring agent is Rose (Ethel Grey Terry) and she has agreed to undertake this dangerous mission.  When warned that this job will be the most dangerous one yet, one that might actually lead to her death, Rose replies that it is just another day in the office.

Meanwhile, Dr. Ferris is still practicing medicine.  He now has a younger colleague named Dr. Wilmot Allen and a daughter named Barbara (Claire Adams).  Wilmot is in love with Barbara but frustrated because she has decided to pursue her career as an artist rather than settle down immediately and marry him.  When he comes to visit her at her studio one day, he starts the conversation that they must have three times a week.  Barbara doesn’t want to marry him until she feels that she has finally done something worthwhile and valuable.  In fact her latest sculpture is going to be entitled “Satan After The Fall” and she hopes it will be a great success, just as soon as she finds models who look like the devil.  She places an advertisement in the paper that literally says “If you look like the devil come to this address”.

Blizzard sees that his chance to take revenge has finally arrived and he presents himself to Barbara.  Barbara, though initially shocked at Blizzard’s appearance, welcomes him into her studio.  Her boy assistant, named Bubbles, warns her that the man sitting before her is one of the most dangerous people in the city.  She dismisses his concerns and begins sculpting.

While Blizzard is away the mice will play.  Rose has become quite a fixture in Blizzard’s factory.  She not only works with the girls but Blizzard has taken her on as his newest mistress as her musical experience makes her a pedal pusher extraordinaire.  When Blizzard is off modeling for Barbara, Rose takes to exploring Blizzard’s private rooms in the hopes of discovering what he is planning.  One day she finds a secret passage in the fireplace and climbing down discovers an armory with guns and straw hats at the ready, and a fully functional operating room.

Blizzard returns from his latest modeling session and finds a hairpin in his office.  Blizzard is no fool and knows that someone has been snooping, and the only woman with access to these rooms is…  “Rose?  Can you come in here?”  Rose enters with trepidation and Blizzard commands her to come and pedal for him while he plays “a death song”.  As the music builds he tells her that they are playing a song to murder by but then the music takes him and when the song is over, Rose is still alive and Blizzard’s anger is spent.  He could never have played that way without her help.  He lets her live and return to work but now with a watchful eye ever on her.  Rose’s cover is blown and all her messages back to the home office are being intercepted.  But something has changed and Rose is having thoughts she never had before.

One evening Blizzard decides to let his second in command in on his master plan.  He intends to take over the city with straw hatted anarchists.  On a chosen date and time an explosion will rock the area and act as the signal for the chaos to begin.  While his men murder and pillage, Blizzard will be taking his personal revenge.

THE PENALTY took me completely by surprise.  I started watching with no idea what to expect and found myself sucked in and loving every dark, twisted moment.  This is due mostly to the magnetic performance of Lon Chaney.  I had heard that Lon Chaney was a master of makeup, seeming to disappear inside the various characters he portrayed.  There was a joke that went around during his career.  “Don’t step on that cockroach!”, people would say, “It might be Lon Chaney!”  Well, I believe it.  Let’s just take a moment and recognize that the man portrays a double amputee.  This is before the time of green screen and CGI, mind you.  As I watched the first scene I figured that Lon Chaney, who was standing facing the camera, was wearing the braces up to his knees but had his legs sticking out behind him but hidden from the camera.  Then he turned around.  WHERE WERE HIS LEGS?!  Chaney famously wore the leg braces by putting his knees into the bottom cups and then tying his legs up behind him.  It was so painful that he could only tolerate it for ten minutes at a time and even suffered permanent muscle damage as a result.  Chaney then bulked up his frame to hide the extra bulge (which you cannot see at all) of his legs and when he was done the illusion was so convincing that the original film was released with a clip showing Lon Chaney walking on his own two legs.  This clip has since been lost.

Not only is Chaney stunning in his use of makeup and effects, he is stunning in his acting.  All the makeup in the world wouldn’t matter if the actor couldn’t use it to affect the audience and Chaney more than delivers.  Blizzard is utterly terrifying and twisted, we feel the danger and unpredictability radiating off of him.  But Chaney manages to keep it just short of cartoonish, allowing there to be an emotional core to Blizzard’s evil.  There is a method to his madness and while we recoil from Blizzard and his evil deeds, we are still drawn to him.  In the scene when Blizzard makes Rose play “a song to murder by” we see the entire range of emotions played out in Chaney’s features.  At the beginning we know, with complete certainty, that Rose is dead and that Blizzard is going to kill her with his own hands.  As the song progresses Blizzard relaxes and we can see the music taking over and soothing his anger.  In the end, Blizzard has lost his angry passion and we see what is left.  Hurt, exhaustion, and resignation.  Chaney does all of this with his face and all in the span of a few minutes.  The final few scenes also offer Chaney a chance to dazzle.  There is a moment where something happens to Blizzard that alters him completely and Chaney’s entire face changes.  He still looks like Blizzard but somehow he doesn’t.  He has changed without changing at all.

THE PENALTY  released by Kino Lorber comes with the options of two different scores if you buy the Blu-Ray.  The DVD, which is the copy that I own, only offers one and it is not the sort of score you are used to.  A modern scoring complete with synthesizers, techno beats, and some orchestration, this musical accompaniment for THE PENALTY is quite controversial.  Many people dislike it.  I liked it, I liked it a lot.  At first I had to get used to it, having gone in expecting the usual piano and violin music, but as the movie progressed I felt that the score was perfectly suited to the story that was being told.

To me the purpose of musical accompaniment for silent films is to enhance the story.  The music helps to give the audience more emotional reference for the images that they are seeing on the screen.  Like a soundtrack for a talkie, the scoring of a silent film helps to enrich the story being portrayed.  THE PENALTY is a dark, twisted, and weird movie.  It needs a dark, twisted, and weird score.  The usual piano and violin music would add a sense of melodrama to the proceedings.  It would diminish the sense of menace and unease, causing Blizzard to be considered more of an over the top villain that audiences might be tempted to laugh at rather than fear.

A great musical score creates a mood and helps audiences become more affected by a film then they might otherwise be.  This scoring of  THE PENALTY does just that.  Don’t get me wrong.  I still like a good, traditional silent film accompaniment when the story suits it.  But there are times when a modern musical accompaniment can be just as good, if not better.  When these films were being made there were no computers to create different effects, sounds, and scores.  There was only a woman or a man at a piano, sometimes a violin and a few more instruments.  Today there are more options and no reason why we shouldn’t take advantage of all the tools accessible to us in order to create a score that enhances the final product in a way that was not possible a hundred years ago.  Traditional scoring is important and should be preserved, but modern scoring is just as valid and should not be discounted simply because it is new.  Besides who’s to say that if the film makers of the silent films had modern tools at their disposal, they wouldn’t have used them?

THE PENALTY is a film that gets under your skin.  Days go by and I am still thinking about it, hearing the score in my head.  I am now a devoted Lon Chaney fan and cannot wait to see more of his work.  I think Fritzi of Movies Silently said it best.  When it comes to Chaney’s films, “you watch them and love them and feel a little sick about it”.


Watching With Warner: HIGHWAY 301 (1950)

Several months ago I read a great post (well, one of many great posts) by Kristina over at Speakeasy about a gritty gangster film she had just seen called HIGHWAY 301.  Spurred on by her recommendation I picked up at copy from Warner Archive but haven’t gotten around to watching it until now.

The film starts with the real-life governors of Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina extolling the virtues of staying on the right side of the law and reminding audiences that the film they are about to see is based on true events.  The action then quickly moves to a bank robbery being perpetrated by Tri-State Gang.  The gang is made up of George Legenza (Steve Cochran), William B. Phillips (Robert Webber), Robert Mais (Wally Cassell), Herbie Brooks (Richard Egan) and Noyes (Edward Norris).  The men make off with the money but they are spotted by a farmer as they switch cars, allowing police to get a partial license plate from the getaway car.  Up to this point the police have been unable to identify any member of the Tri-State gang but the men are no strangers to the law.  Each has had run ins with the police but have received only light sentences for punishment.

Flush with the success of a bank heist done well, the men head back to their wives and girlfriends.  Phillips has recently married a French Canadian by the name of Lee Fontaine (Gaby Andre) who is blissfully unaware of what her husband does for a living.  Legenza’s girlfriend, Madeline (Aline Towne), is more than happy to tell her especially since she has become so disillusioned with the crooked life.  Madeline is miserable and begs Legenza to let her leave but his puts a stop to those thoughts with the back of his hand.  The men go off to talk and Madeline starts to strongly drop hints to Lee about where her new husband’s money comes from, despite the efforts of Mais’ girlfriend Mary Simms (Virginia Grey) to stop her.  Madeline does shut up when Legenza pops up behind her, having heard the end of her little tirade.  Madeline runs off to the ladies room with Mary close behind while Legenza grills Lee on just what was being said.  Fearing for her life, Madeline gives Lee the slip and hurries back to the apartment she shares with Legenza.  Her soon to be ex-boyfriend follows closely behind.

The next day Lee is listening to the radio report on Madeline’s death.  She is terribly upset and blames herself and Phillips for Madeline’s death.  She begs her husband to escape this life with her, having now fully realized just what she has let herself in for.  Phillips tries to calm his wife and tells her that so long as he is around nothing will happen to her.  He promises her that they will leave behind the life of crime after one last job.  This will be the big one, the job that will set them up for life.  After that Phillips promises that he and Lee will return to Canada to start their life together.

Legenza has been tipped off to the route of a transport van carrying two million dollars.  The next day the gang sets out and robs the van with Legenza killing a guard in the process.  As they make their getaway they open the bags to find that the money has all been cut and is now worthless.  The police set up road blocks but Legenza uses his tipster to avoid every barrier and the gang makes their escape in the back of an egg truck.  Upon the men’s return Lee is quite upset at what has happened and at the senseless murder of the guard.  Legenza begins to suspect that Lee might be a threat to the gan, even if her husband is currently preventing anything from happening to her.  Little does the Tri-State gang suspect but things are about to get much worse for them as the police have gained another partial license plate number and are now in the process of putting names and faces to the members of the Tri-State gang.

If you ever wanted to watch a film and say, “Wow they did that?” then let me suggest this film to you.  This is a taught and brutal gangster story with tension and suspense to spare.  There are so many great sequences that I don’t wish to describe here because it would diminish their impact. Special note goes to the sequence in the apartment building when Legenza pursues Madeline which uses the ding of an elevator to ratchet up more tension than fifty machine guns.  The many escapes and police pursuits, as well as the scenes of Legenza stalking his prey are also truly spectacular.  The action is fast and brutal and doesn’t let up for a second.

Can we take a moment and just comment on Steve Cochran?  He always seems to play a nasty piece of work but Lengenza is just about the nastiest piece of work I have seen in a while.  First of all, he shoots EVERYONE…and I do mean everyone.  Second, he has an almost pathological disdain for women.  It starts with Madeline and moves on to Lee, as well as other female bystanders, with Legenza ripping through women like tissue paper.  His slaps fly as fast as his fists, and he shoots with a cold precision that proves he won’t let anything or any one prevent him from getting what he wants.  He seems to have a loyalty to the other members of his gang but that is about it.  Steve Cochran plays all this with a tightness and a coldness that makes it truly frightening.  Legenza never loses his temper completely, never flips out or acts in a way that seems like anything other than cold and methodical.  Maybe that is what makes Legenza even more frightening, the idea that there is even more rage, an even darker side that is still lurking below just waiting to come out and play.

Watching with Warner: BROTHER ORCHID (1940)

I have been a fan of the Warner Archive since the beginning.  The idea of a treasury of rare, unknown, and hard to find movies available for purchase as made-to-order DVDs was a glorious treat to a classic film fan and collector.  Recently, I have discovered their fantastic podcast to which I have quickly become addicted.  Through the podcast I have found more classic films to buy and add to my collection (Thanks George, DW, and Matt!), as well as the new streaming video on demand (SVOD) service aka WARNER ARCHIVE INSTANT.  I am currently trying my free month trial but I am sure that I will be continuing my subscription well after.  It is from the WARNER ARCHIVE INSTANT service that we find our next film…from Warner Brothers in 1940, BROTHER ORCHID.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this movie but I decided that any film with Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart was definitely worth a look!  Edward G. Robinson stars as Johnny Sarto, the boss of a racketeering gang.  After becoming disgusted with the gangland underworld, Johnny decides to quit the racketeering business and travel to Europe in search of “class”.  Jack Buck, played by Humphrey Bogart, is Johnny’s second in command who takes over the gang upon Johnny’s departure.  Johnny also has a devoted girlfriend named Flo, played by Ann Sothern, who wants nothing more than to travel with Johnny and to be his wife.  But that isn’t the sort of class that Johnny is going for, so before he leaves he sets Flo up with a position as a hat check girl at a night club.

Over the next five years Johnny travels all over Europe, spending money on all the finest things and getting fleeced in the process.  At the end of it all he is broke with nothing to show for it.  There is nothing left to do but to return to the big city from whence he came and reclaim his position as a gangland kingpin.  Upon his return everything seems normal, his boys are all happy to see him and they even bought him his favorite orchids to celebrate.  But all is not as it seems, as Johnny soon finds out.  While he was gone, Jack Buck has taken over and is proving himself to be a ruthless gangster and “business man”.  Jack gives Johnny the heave-ho and a warning, don’t come back.

Johnny goes to find Flo, only to discover that she has become a rich nightclub owner.  Flo is also being pursued by a polite, charming, and sweet cowboy named Clarence, played by Ralph Bellamy.  Still in love with Johnny after all these years, Flo vows to help Johnny get back on top (with Clarence’s help, of course).

Johnny starts to rebuild his crew and sets about to compete with Jack Buck, who has recently entered the “protection business”.  Flo is still hoping to become Mrs. Johnny Sarto but the time is never right.  One night Johnny can’t make their date because of his dealings with Jack Buck and his gang.  He calls Flo to tell her, explaining that everything he is doing is so that he can get enough class to marry her.  Flo, feeling guilty for making Johnny work so hard and doing nothing herself, decides to help.  She decides that she will go to Jack Buck personally, and set up a meeting between him and Johnny.  To her surprise, Jack is completely willing to meet with Johnny to talk over their “misunderstanding”…but couldn’t they have the meeting far out of town?  All Flo has to do is get Johnny there, but not let him know that Jack will be there too.  Flo agrees, but has Clarence go along with her for protection.

The night of the big meeting arrives and Flo gets Johnny to the rendezvous with him none the wiser to her real intent.  Clarence sits outside in a parked car, waiting for any trouble.  Jack arrives and signals Flo away from the table, and outside someone knocks out Clarence.  Once Flo leaves the table, Jack approaches and presses a gun to Johnny’s back.  They take a walk outside, where Johnny sees Flo.  Believing that he has been betrayed, Johnny is put into a car with Jack’s men and taken away.  The idea is to get rid of Johnny, but he manages to escape from his would be assassins but not before being shot.  Wounded and exhausted, Johnny ends up at…a monastery of flower selling brothers who soon have a run in with Jack Buck’s protection services.

Based on a story written by Richard Connell for COLLIER’S MAGAZINE in 1938, BROTHER ORCHID is a really fun and funny film.  It was not one that I had heard of, but one that I really enjoyed!  Directed by Lloyd Bacon with a screen play by Earl Baldwin (and contributions from Jerry Wald and Richard Macauley), this film is a gangster movie making fun of gangster movies.  Edward G. Robinson seems to be having a great time, even appearing to poke fun at himself and his famous role as Rico in LITTLE CAESAR.

Speaking of Edward G. Robinson, I admit I often think of him as his roles as gangsters and villains such as LITTLE CAESAR and KEY LARGO.  But after watching this film, I have a much deeper appreciation for him as an actor and a greater desire to see him in some of his other roles.  Edward G. Robinson never seems too cartoony or over the top.  There is a genuineness in his acting, even when he is not the best man in the room, that makes him endlessly watchable and completely relatable.  I will definitely be seeking out more of his films!

This movie doesn’t end the way you might expect, but I felt that the ending made sense to the story and to the character of Johnny Sarto.  The message of the story isn’t all that different, a man trying to find “class” or worth in the world, but how we get there is clever and a little surprising.  All in all, this is a unique and enjoyable film that deserves to be more well known than it is.