Director: Lambert Hillyer. Writer: Charles Kenyon , based on a story by William Dudley Pelley. Starring: Lon Chaney, Virginia Valli, Jack Mower, William Welsh, Christine Mayo, Henry A. Barrows.
This review contains spoilers.
Crippled crook Wilse Dilling (Chaney) is sent by crime queen Ann Cardington (Mayo) to a small town to supervise her revenge plans against a banker (Welsh) who once put her in jail. Dilling balks at those plans when he falls in love with the banker’s daughter Gertrude (Valli).
This is not a horror film, and although Chaney plays his part on crutches and in a wheelchair, he uses his own face rather than one of his elaborate makeups, so The Shock isn’t perhaps what one expects from a Chaney movie of this title. No harm done, however, because it’s a highly entertaining crime melodrama with a truly epic finale.
We’re told at the beginning that Dilling is regarded as a dangerous criminal, but we’re never told in which way, since all we see him do is have a drink and a cigarette. Then we cut to him having already acclimatized to life in the small town, where he has become a friendly, smiling neighbour having tea with good Christian Gertrude. There is deep pathos, of course, since this is a Lon Chaney character: he is sad about his more or less useless legs, all the more so for being in love with Gertrude, who is engaged to a scamp of the first water, Jack Cooper (Mower).
Chaney’s performance is varied and rich, hitting each emotional note splendidly, but the scene where he swears to stand by Cooper if he treats Gertrude right and to go after him if he hurts her, promises things the script doesn’t deliver on – it does indeed imply that Dilling can be very dangerous when crossed, but the way things transpire he then shows himself to be one of the most ineffectual movie heroes I’ve seen. When he tries to save Gertrude’s father from Ann Cardington’s vengeance, he gets knocked out and the father instead saves himself. Instead of defusing the dynamite involved in this situation, Dilling makes good his escape, so that Gertrude instead gets injured in the blast. And then, when Cardington decides to get her revenge through Gertrude instead, Dilling’s failure to save her should be put to music under the title “Fiasco in Three Stages”.
Luckily for him and his bumbling, the climax is set in San Francisco in 1906, so just when all seems lost a massive earthquake comes to his assistance and sorts the good guys from the bad guys. These scenes (the titular “shock”, one assumes) are spectacular and suitably chaotic, using superb special effects, sets and miniatures to present the sheer scale of the disaster. It’s a grand finale quite in line with the melodramatics that have gone on before it.
The Shock is decently well structured and has a vigorous plot. The earthquake is not foreshadowed in any way (we’re not even told in which year the film is set) and is of course too convenient a Deus ex machina device, but it does work thematically and is impressive, so why grumble? One could wish that Dilling had at least almost accomplished something resembling a partial result, as a reward for all his struggling, but at least his heart is in the right place, and again: Chaney’s performance is excellent and shows that he didn’t need to turn himself into a deformed freak to do quality acting.
Fun movie where one shouldn’t expect subtlety or anything low-key where big emotions and big effects will do.
Rating: 6 of 10.