The Penalty (1920)

Lon Chaney. That is all that really needs to be said, and the review could end here. But perhaps a few things about the film The Penalty should be added, just for clarity.

Lon Chaney in The Penalty (1920)

The plot is actually very interesting, even without Chaney’s magnificent interpretation. A young boy gets both his legs amputated by mistake. As he grows up, unloved and unloving, he gets involved with the criminal underworld, eventually rising to become a minor but ruthless crime lord, nicknamed Blizzard, and with aspirations for greatness. He has many young girls among his underlings, and his favourite gets to pedal his piano (since his handicap prevents him from doing so himself). The police has nothing substantial on him, so they decide to send their best female agent. Meanwhile, Blizzard is planning revenge on the doctor who amputated his legs, and on his beautiful sculptor daughter.

Even though it tends to get a bit melodramatic at times, this plot along with the crew’s skillful work are almost enough to raise it to the level of memorable contemporary pieces, such as Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, The Mark of Zorro or Klostret i Sendomir. But then along comes Chaney and quite by himself elevates the whole thing to the level of masterpiece.

This film is best enjoyed for Chaney’s brilliant acting. He is in total control at every moment. Someone compared him with the Robert De Niro of silent film, and there is some truth in that. Not only because of the acting, but also because of his absolute devotion to each role. For this film, he built a contraption that tied his legs up so that he looks totally convincingly amputated. It is said that it was so painful that he could only wear it for ten minutes at a stretch, and still the man could act better than most of today’s stars.

Lon Chaney in The Penalty (1920)

The Penalty
Download link
Year: 1920
Running time: 1 h 30 min
Director: Wallace Worsley
Stars: Lon Chaney
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG4 (622 M)

The Hands of Orlac (1924)

The classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), which I wrote about last week, was to my knowledge the first cooperation between director Robert Wiene and actor Conrad Veidt. Four years later, they were to repeat the success in The Hands of Orlac (originally titled Orlacs Hände).

Conrad Veidt in The Hands of Orlac / Orlacs Hände (1924)

Even though both films are firmly rooted in the German Expressionism, The Hands of Orlac, when compared with the earlier film, is in many ways very different. Take Veidt’s role for starters. He is the protagonist, and he is a good person at heart. But he is also somewhat weak, perhaps even cowardly. When he loses both his hands in an accident, and his career as a concert pianist is threatened, his doctor decides to graft a new pair of hands, a pair that previously belonged to a convicted murderer. When confronted with this, Orlac fears that the evil in these hands will take over his mind. This fear, that body parts from another entity will infect the new host with the mind of the old one, is a theme that can be seen in many later films, such as Wolf Blood (1925) and Frankenstein (1931).

The scenography is also very different when compared with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In the earlier film, the surroundings were nightmarish, bent and twisted, filled with dramatic shadows. Here, the nightmare and the shadows remain, but the rooms are gigantic, with straight, looming walls and pillars, and with very few decorations. This creates an image of small and powerless characters, desperately trying to grasp control from a relentless world. So again, Wiene has created a dramatic masterpiece, but the drama is achieved with different means.

This film is best enjoyed when you want to explore the themes that lead up to the great Hollywood horror films of the early 1930s. It is definitely an important part of that legacy.

Conrad Veidt in The Hands of Orlac / Orlacs Hände (1924)

The Hands of Orlac
Download link
Year: 1924
Running time: 1 h 53 min
Language: English
Director: Robert Wiene
Stars: Conrad Veidt
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (608×464)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (1.1 G) or Matroska (1.1 G)