Wilse Dilling (Lon Chaney) is a man with a bad reputation, known as “dangerous” by the police in Chinatown, where he lives. He has few friends, due not only to his bad reputation, but also to the fact that he can’t walk without the assistance of crutches or a wheelchair (which people judge him for).
The mean streets of Chinatown are ruled by Queen Ann (Christine Mayo). Presiding over the area as the boss of the underworld, she’s decided to run Wilse out of town… but only so he can help her carry out her latest schemes. She’s set up a job for him at the telegraph office in Fallbrook, a quiet little town. She tells him she’ll contact him by wire when her plan is ready to be put in action.
Wilse’s life improves remarkably when he reaches Fallbrook. The people accept him and are kind to him. For the first time he has friends, quickly forming a close bond with the banker’s daughter (Virginia Valli). But Queen Ann and his criminal past are bound to follow him sooner or later.
The Shock is based on a story by William D. Pelley (The Fog) and was directed by Lambert Hillyer (Dracula’s Daughter).
Perhaps my Chaney, Sr. bias is showing, but I find him so lovable and easy to root for in this film. In the beginning he’s clearly disgruntled, but there’s a spark of life within him, which ignites as soon as he reaches Fallbrook. He’s unhappy with his life of crime and isolation in Chinatown, but is more than capable of living an honest, happy life.
The Shock is a film that offers many moods. The story jumps from the ominous aura of Queen Ann, to the sweetness of watching Wilse’s life improve, to the heartbreak Wilse feels when he learns the woman he loves is engaged to another man. And, yes, there are a few genuine moments of “shock,” too, when Wilse’s past comes back to bite him. A whole lot of emotion is packed into these 64 minutes!
As it turns out, Wilse is not the only one in Fallbrook who has a past with Queen Anne. I won’t spoil just who else is involved with that mob matriarch, but I will say that The Shock presents an intriguing crime drama. Along with the less-dramatic story of a man finding redemption through the kindness and friendship of others, the tale of blackmail and corruption makes for an interesting watch.
It is also worth mentioning that Christine Mayo gives a stellar performance as the powerful, conniving Queen Anne. She’s every ounce as sinister as a crime boss should be — certainly a force to be reckoned with!
With so much going on, and in such a short run-time, The Shock could easily have been a confused mess of a film, with underdeveloped characters and predictable plot developments. That fate is avoided through a wonderful lead performance by Lon Chaney, and a nicely-crafted script. The viewer’s interest is effortlessly held by this engrossing tale. The score: 5/5!
NOTE: This review is of the Alpha Video DVD release of The Shock, with a 2003 musical score. This film can also be found on the Internet Archive, though I’m not sure of the print quality or score for that version. The DVD is pretty nice quality for a nearly-forgotten film from 1923 — there’s a fair bit of grain, but no major flaws to the picture.