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American Movie: The Cheat (1915)

thecheatWhile D.W. Griffith was busily introducing the nation to mega-hit, multi-hour historical epics, most feature films of the period continued to clock in at somewhere around an hour in length. Griffith may be the name among early silent filmmakers, but he was not the only director making a name for himself and enlisting A-list acting talent. Cecil B. DeMille, who would eventually be perceived as the consummate Hollywood showman, began his filmmaking career in 1914 by directing The Squaw Man, the first feature-length film to be made in Hollywood. By the time he made The Cheat about a year later, he had added nearly two dozen pictures to his filmography, mostly Westerns.

The Cheat is about a foolish society woman, Edith Hardy (Fannie Ward), who falls under the charming spell of a sinister Japanese ivory merchant, Hishuru Tori (Sessue Hayakawa). While her husband Richard (Jack Dean) tirelessly plays the stock market, Edith fritters away his money as quickly as it comes in, despite his attempts to curtail her spending while he waits for investments to pay off. Meanwhile, Edith is convinced by a friend of Richard’s to invest the $10,000 entrusted to her keeping (as treasurer of her charity), but the investment is a bad one and the money is lost. Knowing that her husband hasn’t a dollar to spare due to his own investments, she allows Tori to loan her the sum in order to avoid certain disgrace.

The following day, her husband’s investments pay off and he writes her a check for $10,000, no questions asked, but Tori is not interested in the money. He refuses to accept the check, instead locking Edith inside his house and attempting to rape her. When she resists, he brands her with his mark. She finds a gun and shoots him in the shoulder before fleeing. Richard, who has suspiciously followed her to Tori’s house, bursts in to find the wounded man and then claims to have fired the gun himself when the police arrive. He is placed on trial and found guilty, but Edith (who has remained inexplicably silent) can finally contain herself no longer. She reveals everything to the shocked courtroom, and she and her husband go free while the judge only just prevents the crowd from lynching the plaintiff.

Fannie Ward is the top-billed star and title character of The Cheat. She is the heroine and the damsel-in-distress. However, this film belongs to Sessue Hayakawa, who delivers his role with a skill and subtlety that belies the film’s racist undertones. Hayakawa is best known today for his role as Colonel Saito in 1957’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, but he got his start in the industry as something of a heartthrob. One of the first Asians to make a name in Hollywood, Hayakawa amassed a personal fortune and was a well-known member of the movie star social scene throughout the late teens. During the ’20s he performed throughout America, Europe, and Asia. With the arrival of sound, however, roles began to dry up, and when the Production Code banned miscegenation in movies, Hayakawa left acting behind until the post-World War II demand for Japanese actors returned him to the screen.

Incidentally, despite Hayakawa’s willingness to play a role that demonizes Asians, Japanese Americans in California objected very strongly to the film’s portrayal and the Japanese Embassy even lodged a complaint. As a result, the character’s name was changed to Haka Arakau and his country of origin changed to Burma for the 1918 re-release. The change seems to rather miss the point, but it satisfied the Japanese.

The Cheat ventures ever so slightly into territory that would define DeMille’s films for much of his career: the lascivious morality play. The stories they tell, while ultimately affirming traditional values, wallow shamelessly in the vices of their characters until the final comeuppance arrives. Thus, thrill-seeking audiences are allowed to have their cake and eat it, too, reveling in vice without having to feel guilty about it. Even after he moved on to making biblical epics, he rarely failed to titillate audiences. DeMille’s lowbrow, commercial approach to filmmaking filled theater seats, but did little to endear him to critics. However, in The Cheat he was still experimenting with more artistic approaches to the form, and the result was much-admired, particularly in Europe, and holds up well even now.

The film tells its story with an admirable clarity and visual flair that are surprising to find in such an early work. The dialogue between characters is extremely easy to make out, even without intertitles, and the characterizations are sketched rapidly and economically. The introduction to the Tori character, which the film opens with, is particularly striking. He sits alone in a dark room, lit only by the glowing embers he is using to heat a small iron, which he then draws out to brand a small ivory statue. The scene sets the mood, establishes the character, and foreshadows a pivotal scene.

After his foreboding entrance, however, Tori appears fairly innocuous and likable during the first half of the film. He is suave, handsome, and well-mannered, and it seems at first that the villain will be Richard, whose suspicions of the Asian man come across as ill-founded jealousy. Hayakawa masterfully shifts the tone of his character while he is giving Edith a tour of his house during a party. Taking her into a back room he shows her the branding iron. She asks what it is for and he presents one of the statuettes with the logo on the bottom. When she wonders what it means, he answers that it means the object is his property. His presence has very suddenly moved from friendly to menacing.

The Cheat is full of expert touches. For instance, when Edith discovers that her investment has tanked, her imagination runs wild. A newspaper appears in a corner of the screen with a headline that reads, “Society Wife Steals Charity Money.” By far the best scene, however, is the climax of the film, where Edith finds herself assaulted by Tori. The moment when he subdues her and brands her shoulder is shocking, if not unexpected. Bad things are not supposed to happen to the heroine, and the act is jarringly brutal. Richard arrives just in time to see the wounded Tori, silhouetted against the paper screen, slumping back and sliding to the floor. A ghastly blood stain (a masterful image, and an unusual sight in early American cinema) streaks the paper in his wake and Richard smashes his way through to the other side. The courtroom scene showcases DeMille’s skill at wrangling crowds, and the surge of the enormous crowd towards Tori, who cowers behind the judge, is a powerful moment.

At its core, The Cheat is boilerplate melodrama, packed with overwrought cliches and lazy stereotypes. Despite this, however, something about the treatment of the material elevates it beyond its merits. The great performance by Sessue Hayakawa and experimentation by DeMille make it not only watchable, but enjoyable; a genuine classic of the silent era.

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~ by Jared on November 4, 2008.

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