Saturday, December 27, 2014

#197: The Penalty (Wallace Worsley, 1920)

The Penalty, based on the novel by Gouverneur Morris, is a not-quite-obscure but not-quite-as-famous-as-it-should-be silent gem with a great cast, brisk storytelling, and one of the craziest plots I've had the pleasure to come across. This is a fantastically weird movie I can easily recommend to silent movie buffs and genre fans, and even as the ending veers toward moralizing and wrapping things up too neatly in a mild betrayal of what came before, another twist on top puts things back in the land of the weirdly dark. I really enjoyed this one.
The movie opens with a boy in a bed at the home practice of a young doctor. The boy has been hit by a car on a nearby street, and the doctor has amputated both of the boy's legs below the knees in an emergency decision to save the child's life. An older mentor doctor arrives and realizes the younger doctor has made a terrible mistake. The amputation was unnecessary. To save the young doc's reputation, the older man lies to the boy's parents. The boy, meanwhile, has overheard the whole thing and is understandably distraught.
The movie then jumps forward 27 years. Our young amputee is now known as Blizzard (Lon Chaney Sr.), and he's the evil kingpin of the San Francisco underworld. Despite moving around on crutches and wearing what appear to be pails on his stumps, he's an intimidating guy who runs the gambling, prostitution, burglary, and nightclub trade in SF's Barbary Coast neighborhood. He's not above murdering people to get what he wants, and he's got some big, big plans he's secretly putting into place.
The young doctor who mistakenly amputated his legs, Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary), is now a big shot with a clinic of his own and a young doctor he's mentoring, Dr. Wilmot Allen (Kenneth Harlan), who is also engaged to his sculptor daughter Barbara (Claire Adams). The doctors both think Barbara should give up that art junk and become a housewife, like all respectable women, but she won't marry the boring Dr. Wilmot unless she fails as an artist. I don't think she should marry that twerp at all, but what can you do? Barbara is planning a sculpture about the fall of Satan and she needs a model who can capture some nice devilish scowls. Blizzard, in an attempt to get close to Dr. Ferris for part of his revenge plot, becomes the artist's model.
While the sculpture business is going on, things are also happening at police headquarters. The police chief needs an undercover operative. He's wanted to take down Blizzard's empire for years, but he knows the bust has to be big to end the whole shebang at once. For some reason, Blizzard has forced all his nightclub showgirls to move into his compound and make hats. Thousands and thousands of hats. What's Blizzard's angle? This hat thing is bananas. He asks his chief undercover agent Rose (Ethel Grey Terry) to get a job with Blizzard, get on the inside, make the hats, and find out what the hell is going on. He tells her he almost wishes she'll turn down the assignment because it's so dangerous, but Rose nonchalantly replies, "All in the day's work, chief." Rose has moxie.
Soon, we have nefarious plots involving secret underground lairs, leg transplantation, piano playing, the looting of San Francisco, disgruntled immigrants, murder, revenge, surprise declarations of love, and thousands of straw hats. There's even time for a little redemption, brain surgery, and the old double-cross, all in 90 minutes.
The wackiness and unpredictability of the plot go a long way, especially as Wallace Worsley is not a director who will awe you with beauty or stunning shot composition. He's a naturalistic director who emphasizes story and actors over personal style. Though my favorite directors are strong visual stylists, I can respect the honorable, modest craftsman, especially when the story and actors are as great as they are here. On the other hand, I don't want to imply that the visuals are clunky or perfunctory. Worsley is graceful in his own subtle way, and the film is a pleasure to look at.
Lon Chaney gets a meaty role as Blizzard, performing on his knees with his legs bound, in a physical performance that must have been extremely painful. His face captures the swirl of conflicting emotions and motivations behind his actions, and he makes it plausible for a guy on crutches with no legs to be the intimidating ruler of a criminal empire. The doctors are all stiff bores, but Claire Adams and Ethel Grey Terry get to bring interesting, complicated women to life, and Blizzard's criminal underlings are delightfully sleazy.
This is a strange film, capturing elements of horror, the gangster film, science fiction, comic book supervillainy, and melodrama without being dominated by any of these genres. The Penalty is its own weird thing, and I'm glad I saw it.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

#196: Alligator (Lewis Teague, 1980)

Alligator is one of the most likable and most entertaining of the '70s/'80s wave of low-budget, post-Jaws giant killer animal movies, and I recommend it to anyone who likes character actor-dominated exploitation movies with witty, campy screenplays. I also recommend it to anyone who enjoys big-ass alligators chomping down on lots of people who deserve their comeuppance, which is all of us, right? They just don't make them like this anymore, and that really sucks for humankind. (Insert rant about modern genre and Hollywood filmmaking from many past reviews here.)
Alligator was an early film for director Lewis Teague, who went on to make the Tom Skerritt vigilante movie Fighting Back, Cujo, Cat's Eye, the Romancing the Stone sequel The Jewel of the Nile, Navy Seals, and a TV movie that reunited the original cast of The Dukes of Hazzard. To be honest, Teague is the weak link of Alligator. Before he became a more conventional director-for-hire, he was a bit rough and tumble, and Alligator is visually lacking in finesse, personality, or any kind of signature directorial style. You don't watch Alligator for its visual beauty or panache. Fortunately, Alligator has a very funny, silly, tongue-in-cheek screenplay from John Sayles, who at the time augmented his more serious independent directorial career with screenplays for smartly campy B-movies like Piranha, The Howling, Battle Beyond the Stars, and this film. You also get a cast that is loaded with some of the most enjoyable character actors of the '70s and '80s, including Robert Forster, Michael V. Gazzo, Henry Silva, Robin Riker, Sydney Lassick, Dean Jagger, and even Lolita herself, Sue Lyon, in a cameo as a TV news reporter.
Alligator begins with a prologue set in 1968. A middle-aged couple and their young daughter are watching an alligator-wrestling exhibition, which ends badly when the gator wrangler trips on a wet log and gets his leg chomped by the gator. The girl is captivated by the reptile despite the gore and buys a baby alligator, which she puts in an aquarium at home. She plans to donate it to a zoo when it gets too big. Her angry father doesn't want a gator in his home, no matter how tiny, so he flushes it down the toilet while his daughter is at school.
Fast-forward to the present. It is now 1980 and we are still in the never-named Missouri city where the gator was flushed. (In a triumph for authenticity, Los Angeles stands in for Missouri here.) The alligator did not die in the sewers in its youth. Thanks to an unscrupulous millionaire who is financing illegal scientific research, hundreds of dogs are being kidnapped and subjected to highly cruel animal testing in an attempt to make them grow much larger much faster. This all has something to do with ending world hunger, but that part never makes any sense. The dead dogs are disposed of in the sewer by an unscrupulous pet store owner (Lassick) who is selling the kidnapped dogs to the unscrupulous millionaire. The chemically embiggened dog carcasses are a great food source for the alligator, who grows insanely huge in his sewer abode.
Soon, the gator is not just chomping on dogs. He eats some city workers, and the police think they have a serial killer on their hands. Homicide detective with a troubled past David (Forster) is assigned to the case by Chief Clark (the awesomely eye-browed and gravelly voiced Gazzo), but when he discovers their murderer is actually a giant alligator, his story is greeted with ridicule. He wins over the initially skeptical herpetologist and internationally renowned gator expert Marisa (Riker), who teaches at the local university, and the town finally comes around when a journalist gets some photos of the monster reptile. The police attempt to flush out the beast and kill it, but the gator gets loose and goes on a hilarious and awesome rampage. David starts poking a little too much into the illegal scientific research and runs afoul of the corrupt mayor, who takes him off the case and installs a hilariously sexist and racist big game hunter from out of town named Brock (played by the legendary Henry Silva) who thinks he's America's number one badass and who tries to seduce a TV reporter by wooing her with his impression of the gator's mating call.
This is all pretty entertaining stuff. The gator chomps down on sleazy journalists, racist macho dicks, corrupt politicians, and millionaire fat cats, interrupts a stickball game, crashes a wedding reception, swims in a pool, swims in a lake, and even manages to eat a little kid. (They actually kill a child in this movie, something that is horribly tragic in real life but pretty hilarious in B-movies, for some reason.) Finally, David and Marisa, who are also falling in love, decide that enough is enough and go after the gator themselves. A pretty sweet finale ensues, and fun is had by all.
What more can I say? I don't have much in the way of critical, historical, or social analysis here. This is, after all, a film about a giant alligator going nuts on a fictional Missouri town. However, the script is full of clever nods to other movies and funny jokes, and the actors give their characters neat little beats and details that make them feel like real people even though the story is intentionally ridiculous. It's also nice to see the kind of creeps who bring shame to our country get eaten by a giant alligator. This will probably never happen in real life, but we can always dream that one day a gator may eat Dick Cheney, the Walton family, Rupert Murdoch, etc. I like this movie a lot. It's a feelgood romp that beats the pants off other feelgood romps like The English Patient and Alligator II, and I recommend it to those who share my sensibility.