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The Penalty (1920): SF on the Silent Screen

If you think San Francisco has changed so much in recent years that Dirty Harry (1971) is almost a museum piece, you'll be shocked to see how much of the City is still standing from the 1920 film The Penalty. Starring Lon Chaney in his breakout role as a vengeful, amputee underworld boss hell-bent on robbing the Old Mint, The Penalty is a frightening noir that draws heavily on San Francisco's historical viceland. The Tenderloin Museum presents a screening of this macabre classic of the silent film era, followed by a century-spanning look of The Penalty’s many recognizable locales. Don Herron, acclaimed literary walking-tour guide and Dashiell Hammett expert, will host the evening, which features an exclusive virtual tour of movie’s locations by CitySleuth (aka Brian Hollins), the authority on the urban history of SF film noir.

One of the most popular stars of 1920s Hollywood, Lon Chaney rolled into town to make several movies, and The Penalty is his tour de force of location shooting --- building for building the equivalent of the Bogart-Bacall Dark Passage (1947) or the Stewart-Novak Vertigo (1958). Famed for monstrous portrayals in films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and Phantom of the Opera (1925), Chaney kicked off his parade of cinema grotesques with his showstopping performance as Blizzard, a legless crime lord who rules Chinatown and harbors a burning ambition to knock over the Mint. Based on the serial novel by Gouverneur Morris, The Penalty is rife with sights of “lost” San Francisco and makes an ideal subject to explore the link between the noir genre and the history of vice in the Barbary Coast and Tenderloin.

Don Herron and CitySleuth make a powerhouse pair to investigate The Penalty’s legacy in San Francisco. Don Herron, who has roamed the Tenderloin for over 40 years with The Dashiell Hammett Tour, will discuss his theory that the iconic TL author lifted the plot of The Penalty for his short novel The Big Knockover, in which a gang of 100 crooks storm into San Francisco to simultaneously rob two banks across the street from each other at Pine and Montgomery.

Brian Hollins, whose dedicated and insightful blog maps the locations of films shot in the Bay Area, will present a slideshow after the screening that pinpoints where all of the action took place. As the mysterious CitySleuth, Hollins illuminates the connections between the SF on screen and the city as it stands today. His especially detailed work with The Penalty brings this twisted, silent thriller clearly into the present.