Film Review: The Cheat
In 1915, Cecil B. DeMille released The Cheat, based off a screenplay written by Hector Turnbull and Jeanie Macpherson. Starring Fannie Ward, Sessue Hayakawa, Jack Dean, James Neill, Yutaka Abe, Dana Ong, Hazel Childers, Arthur H. Williams, Raymond Hatton, Dick La Reno, and Lucien Littlefield, the film grossed $96,389 at the domestic box office. Banned in the United Kingdom and never released in Japan, the film was rereleased in 1918, changing Hayakawa’s character to a Burmese ivory king. It was also remade in 1923 by George Fitzmaurice, in 1931 by George Abbott, and in 1937 by Marcel L’Herbier, who made significant changes to the story.
Long Island socialite Edith Hardy keeps pestering her husband for more spending money, but he’s neglecting her for work and his money is tied up in an investment so he can’t give her any spending money anyway and her idleness leads her to flirt with Japanese ivory merchant Hishituru Tori. But when one of her husband’s friends mentions a get rich quick scheme, she takes money the Red Cross is raising to invest and loses it, causing her to turn to Tori. But he has turned predatory.
A relatively low-key and provocative film that isn’t indicative of DeMille’s later works, The Cheat is a great, well-made silent film. It’s shot very well, with the most interesting scenes being those between Tori and Edith. Notable is the scene where she’s trying to return the money and refuse sex with him. While the film doesn’t explicitly show Edith being branded, the struggle prior and then the smoke rising coupled with Tori showing explicit rage is done well as it shows just how furious Tori was with the whole situation and though the film doesn’t outright show Edith’s branding, the aforementioned smoke implies that his rage is causing him to be harder than usual, which results in the heavy amount of smoke. Also notable in this scene is when Edith shoots Tori, causing him to slump against the wall. However, his wall being made of translucent rice paper produces an interesting camera angle as the camera shoots it from the other side and the audience sees his silhouette slumping and a bloody smear left on the wall.
But in everything else, Edith has quite the character arc. At first, she’s not very sympathetic, complaining that her husband doesn’t spend enough on her, not paying the maid the wages she’s due, flirting and playing with Tori’s affections and believing in a get rich quick scheme where her husband’s friend says he has the ability to double $10,000, causing her to take from a charity raising money for Belgian aid. Further, she’s the titular “cheat” in her reneging on the deal she made with Tori by trying to give him back the money when her husband’s investment comes through. It results in Tori trying to force Edith to keep up her end of the bargain. Her subsequent branding and husband taking the blame for Tori being shot looks to have given her a change of heart in that she starts thinking of someone other than herself. It drives the final portion of the film where she’s pleading with Tori to drop the charges and then rushing the stand during the trial to show that she’s the guilty party. While it’s not as radical a shift as the film would like it to be, making her into a tragic heroine, it’s still good as an example of character growth.
But even though Edith isn’t an exemplary character, Tori isn’t the best either. He’s established as branding his figurines and later tells Edith that it’s how he marks his possessions. Further, he’s initially pleasant and non-threatening, but manages to have an extreme shift where he gets Edith to promise that she’ll sleep with him if he’ll give her the lost money and when she backs out, he feels entitled to her. In fact, he feels so entitled that he’s convinced she belongs to him, seen in how he tries to brand her and then rape her. The character also speaks highly of Hayakawa’s acting ability. Where everyone else is acting in the usual manner of playing up and exaggerating all their movements and gestures, he acts more refined and controlled. It gives him great contrast from the other actors and helps him stand out more. Further, his control makes the character more threatening and provides a greater emphasis for when he turns on Edith.
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