(image courtesy LA Times)A young man, an accident victim, lies in a hospital bed. In a semi-conscious haze he overhears the frantic words of his doctors; they’ve needlessly amputated both his legs and are desperate to cover their error. The boy’s parents enter and weep as they receive the news: "Only immediate amputation could save your child's life." “He lies!” cries the boy, only to have his words written off as an “effect of the ether”.
Fast forward now, and we meet the boy as a grown man – as Blizzard (Lon Chaney), the crime lord ruling the San Francisco underworld from his crutches. He has big plans for himself and the city, the gruesome details of which are as dark and cold as his name. A legion of slave women labor towards his end…but there are two who hold his entire fate in their hands: Barbara (Claire Adams), the artist for whom he sits, and Rose (Ethel Grey Terry), an undercover spy for the police. How their destinies mix to change all of their lives together is the plot of this riveting blend of crime drama and horror.
God, I loved this movie.
(image courtesy Films Muets - Silent Movies)
Can we just talk for a minute about how unbelievably badass Lon Chaney was? The man was willing to do anything to commit to his role – Method actors have nothing on him! From Motion Picture Magazine, Sept 1920:
He played his part with his leg[s] strapped behind him, and it hurt so terribly that he could only work for a few moments at a time and then had to be released and rest for a while before he could continue working.
I can’t help but be a little breathless over LC’s grace and dexterity. There’s a scene where Blizzard pulls himself up a hand ladder – you can’t help but be amazed at not only the upper body strength, but how natural and effortless he makes it look. According to Wikipedia, the original print had a short epilogue of Chaney out of character to prove he really wasn't a double-amputee; I can’t think of any other contemporary of his that was so believable as to need a disclaimer.
(image courtesy myawkwardself.tumblr.com)
It’s not just his physical acting that blew me away, however. Chaney gives a taste of the sinister yet complex character roles he would excel in, especially for Tod Browning; in a role which would easily be one-dimensional, LC adds humanity. He makes Blizzard dangerous, but also flawed, relatable. We see how he has been broken by life, crippled in spirit as well as body. It is only when playing his beloved piano that Chaney allows the beauty of Blizzard’s pain to show through. “I can murder anything but music.”
Claire Adams’ Barbara is suitably terrified by Chaney, so much so that when she (inevitably) becomes sympathetic to him, it’s a bit of a stretch. Ethel Grey Terry does better by Rose, giving her a more credible mix of fear, awe, and – dare I say it – love.
Even a far-fetched ending cannot damage this film, one of the best silents I have ever seen. I give this one: