Cheat, The (1915)
Cecil B. DeMille was lucky to start making movies independently in 1914. Unlike the previous generation of directors, he didn’t have to serve a long apprenticeship making short films, and unlike directors bound to the Edison Trust, he didn’t have to fight to be able to work in feature length. He lept in with Westerns like “The Squaw Man” and “The Virginian,” then graduated in 1915 to dramas like this one (the epics he’s remembered for today don’t come along until the twenties).
Here, Fanny Ward (later in “Her Strange Wedding” and “Witchcraft”) is a young socialite with no head for money, whose husband (played by her real-life husband Jack Dean, whose credits include “The Marriage of Kitty” and “A School for Husbands”) refuses to buy her fancy gowns and lingerie while his money is tied up in an important investment. So, she wisely decides to invest the money entrusted to her by the Red Cross in a shady copper mine pushed on her by some guy at a party. Salvation comes in the form of Sessue Hayakawa (who we saw in “Last of the Line” and later got an oscar nomination for “Bridge on the River Kwai”), a wealthy Asian financier, who offers to loan her the money to save face. When Dean’s investment pays off, Fanny is jubilant, and runs over to pay off Sessue, but he’s not having it. He clearly felt he had “bought” her when he lent the money, and he proves it by taking out a wax seal and branding her with his mark! Understandably displeased, Fanny picks up a revolver and shoots him in the shoulder, running off into the night. Now hubby wanders in, no doubt wondering where his wife ran off to with $10,000 in the middle of the night. Finding the wounded man, the check, and the gun, he puts it together and confesses to the crime when the police arrive. His wife’s later efforts to buy off the scheming villain are to no avail – “You cannot cheat me twice,” he declares. This leaves her no choice but to pull a dramatic court room reveal, saving the day at the risk of her honor.
Now, a lot’s already been made about the fact that the villain is a foreigner, to the point that the intertitles were changed in 1918 to make him Burmese rather than Japanese, due to protests from the Japanese government. And it certainly fits the general racial attitudes of the day, though I would point out that Hayakawa is never held up to represent all members of his race; he appears to act as an individual. At worst, he’s sort of a “Shylock” character, who would confirm existing prejudices without necessarily promoting them to new audiences. What is interesting is that the end of the movie toys with the possibility of a bloody lynching when the white male spectators at the trial burst into an angry mob at the sight of Fanny’s brand. But it doesn’t go there. The judge insists on keeping order, and the police eventually calm things down and escort Sessue out of the room. The message does not seem to endorse lawless racist vigilantism, at least, which is more than I can say for “The Birth of a Nation.”
Since I noted the good use of darkness and shadow in Feuillade’s early work recently, I want to draw special attention to how far we’ve come by 1915. There are several darkened rooms and darkened exteriors, and especially good is the dark jail cell, with the shadows of bars striking Dean’s frame and the back wall, in a noir-like effect. When Fanny moves a practical lamp, however, its shadow is clearly visible against her, making it obvious that the light actually comes from another (off screen) source. The whole movie is shot much closer to the actors than earlier films would have been. There are few true close ups, but quite a few intimate two-shots, and shots that show only the upper half of the actors, meaning that we can see faces much more clearly and rely less on pantomime.
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Camera: Alvin Wyckoff
Starring: Fanny Ward, Jack Dean, Sessue Hayakawa, Raymond Hatton
Run Time: 58 Min, 50 secs
You can watch it for free: here.