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Film / The Penalty

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Rose submits to Blizzard.

The Penalty is a 1920 film directed by Wallace Worsley, starring Lon Chaney.

A teenaged boy is injured when he's struck by a car. The emergency physician whisked to the scene, one Dr. Ferris, amputates both of the boy's broken legs. The second doctor called to the sickroom tells Dr. Ferris that the amputation was unnecessary and the boy's legs could have been saved. The older doctor agrees to help cover up Dr. Ferris' bungling, but not before the boy comes out of his anesthesia and realizes what Ferris did to him.

Fast forward 27 years. The young double amputee now goes by the name of Blizzard (Lon Chaney) and is a lord of organized crime in San Francisco. Blizzard's rackets include prostitution and heroin, but San Francisco police have noticed some odd activity. Blizzard has pulled his whores off the street and has set them to work making—hats. Bewildered, the cops send Rose, an attractive secret agent, on an infiltration into Blizzard's crime ring.

Meanwhile, Dr. Ferris escaped any responsibility for maiming Blizzard, and is a prosperous physician. His assistant, young Dr. Allen, is courting Ferris's daughter Barbara. Barbara is a sculptor, but Ferris and Allen, both being 1920-style sexist pigs, are irritated by her maintaining a career and think she should quit to marry Allen. Blizzard finds out about Barbara and wrangles himself a job as a model for a statue of Satan that she is sculpting. He has a plot for revenge against Dr. Ferris that ties into a much larger criminal plot.

Star-Making Role for Chaney, who would play similar freaks, weirdos, and criminals until his premature death from cancer in 1930.


  • Bookcase Passage: After searching all around Blizzard's office, Rose eventually stumbles upon a loose brick on the fireplace. This reveals a handle which, when pulled, causes the hearth to lift up and reveal a rope ladder made for Blizzard and his stumps. Rose climbs the ladder down and finds a huge underground lair which contains, among other things, a huge stash of rifles and a fully equipped operating room.
  • Career Versus Man: Ferris and Allen, who are both sexist pigs, are pushing Barbara to get married and leave all this silly sculpting behind. Barbara doesn't want to.
  • Conversation Cut: "Hats and men—what's the devil up to?", says Rose's mystified boss. This is immediately followed by a cut to Blizzard explaining his plan to O'Hagan. Blizzard's plan is to stage an explosion and start riots in the suburbs of San Francisco. When the police go to the scenes of the disturbances, Blizzard and the ten thousand men he has imported into the city will stage a gigantic raid on the Financial District and rob it blind. The hats are uniforms so that Blizzard's men will know each other on D-day.
  • Dating Catwoman: Rose falls in love with Blizzard, despite how evil he is. Meanwhile, Blizzard develops feelings for Rose that stop him from killing her even after he finds out that she is an agent for the police.
  • Defecting for Love: In the good-to-bad direction. After falling in love with Blizzard, Rose stops sending information to the cops, and even goes so far as to help lure Dr. Ferris to Blizzard's lair. She finally goes back to the cops after finding out just what Blizzard wants Dr. Ferris to do to Allen.
  • Evil Cripple: This was the first of several such roles for Chaney. Blizzard is a rage-filled, homicidal double amputee who presides over a sprawling criminal empire.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Rose the secret agent for the police falls in love with Blizzard and joins him, ending her work as a spy for the cops.
  • Fanservice Extra: Is there a naked woman modeling for Barbara's sculpture? Why yes, yes there is.
  • Harmful Healing: A panicky Dr. Ferris unnecessarily amputates both of young Blizzard's legs.
  • The Infiltration: Rose, a secret agent with the police, infiltrates Blizzard's gang of streetwalkers-turned-hat makers, and worms her way into position as Blizzard's moll.
  • Karma Houdini: Neither O'Hagan nor Frisco Pete nor anyone else suffers any punishment for any of their crimes. Only Blizzard.
  • Kubrick Stare: Blizzard has a gift for some truly terrifying Kubrick Stares, like when he's glaring at Rose after finding out for sure that she is an operative with the police.
  • Laughing Mad: O'Hagan calls Blizzard mad after Blizzard explains his plot for the giant raid. Blizard's wild-eyed cackle doesn't exactly prove O'Hagan wrong.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: The movie starts with Blizzard as a teenaged boy getting his legs chopped off before jumping forward 27 years to the main story.
  • Property of Love: Well, Rose doesn't confess her love for Blizzard by saying "I love you" or anything. Nope, she calls him "Master!"
  • Redemption Equals Death: Dr. Ferris' surgery on his brain rewrites Blizzard's personality and turns him to good. This gets Blizzard murdered.
  • Red Light District: The Barbary Coast, once the red-light district of San Francisco, home to strip joints and streetwalkers and junkies, and also home to Blizzard's criminal empire.
  • Resignations Not Accepted:
    • "Barbary Nell", one of Blizzard's prostitutes, is murdered by a junkie on Blizzard's orders after she leaves his gang.
    • The film ends with Frisco Pete, one of Blizzard's former criminal underlings, having him murdered after he leaves the criminal life behind.
  • Single-Issue Psychology: 27 years ago, Dr. Ferris's colleague noted of Blizzard that "there is a contusion at the base of the skull." Turns out that the contusion at the base of his skull is what turned Blizzard into a murderer and criminal. Dr. Ferris's surgery completely changes Blizzard's whole personality and turns him to good.
  • Time Skip: 27 years between the loss of Blizzard's legs to the present-day story.
  • Title Drop: Blizzard is shot by Frisco Pete on O'Hagan's orders. As he's dying, Blizzard explains to Rose that even though he's a changed man now, he was once a criminal who killed a lot of people, and "for that I must pay the penalty."
  • Visual Innuendo: Despite having no legs, Blizzard loves to play piano. He can't hit the pedals, though, so he has to get someone to do it for him. First an anonymous moll is doing it, and then Rose does it when she becomes Blizzard's moll. This requires the pedaler to get down on her knees in front of Blizzard's bench. The pose of sexual subjugation is obvious.
  • You Can't Thwart Stage One: A rare aversion. Blizzard has an elaborate plot to stage a massive ten thousand man raid on the Financial District of San Francisco. But before he does that he wants Dr. Ferris to cut off Allen's legs and graft them onto his stumps so he can walk. Dr. Ferris doesn't cooperate, instead operating on the brain contusion that made Blizzard go crazy. The giant raid never happens.