08 June 2009

The Cheat (1915)

d. Cecil B. DeMille / USA / 59 mins.

Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat is one of the great early silent films precisely because it feels like it should have been released a decade after its late 1915 premiere. With swiftness and grace DeMille impressively merges the two crucial elements so often undefined in early cinema — narrative and photography — and one-ups his contemporary D.W. Griffith in the process by making the totality of the final work something that's stunningly subtle. There's no doubt Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, released the same year as The Cheat, is one of cinema's truly capital-I-capital-F "Important Films," and there's also no doubt that its size and magnitude allowed it to be literally sweeping in its approach to all elements across the planes of production. DeMille's film is smaller, a third the length of Griffith's, and nowhere near as incendiary, but somehow it matches to be more breathtaking and imminently more watchable.

The story, one of both prurience and possession that DeMille acknowledged in autobiography was both melodramatic and lurid, is tight and focused: a vacuous Long Island socialite named Edith (Fannie Ward) burns through her husband's (Jack Dean) money, and when a ten-thousand-dollar copper investment completely bottoms out, her neighbor Tori (Sessue Hayakawa), a wealthy ivory dealer from Japan, lays hold of her debt in exchange for her body. If that sounds vaguely racist ("East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet," a title card tells us), then yes, it's necessary to say The Cheat cannot escape its possible xenophobic interpretations, particularly near its end when a shocked audience demands vengeance. The depictions of a Japanese man would so infuriate Japan that for its 1918 re-release (and most of the versions available today) the film identifies Tori as Burmese instead of Japanese and changes his name to Haka Arakau.

To those willing to forgive Griffith's Nation for its extraordinary racism, The Cheat will seem profoundly tame. Even against Griffith's Broken Blossoms (which also features an Asian principle character) The Cheat seems to come out ahead of the curve, precisely because its Asian character is not played by a white man (as was the custom of the day, and as Griffith employs in Blossoms) but instead played by Hayakawa, whose performance is dynamic in its control; in praising his performance in 1915, some critics at the time went as far as to say his effect on American was "more electric" than Rudolph Valentino's. Although an "exotic" character, Tori is not an epitome of Eastern stereotypes; his wardrobe is decidedly western, his house elegantly styled, and his syntax well developed. These might seem innocuous, but they go a long way toward making the art of the film go unbothered by the context of the narrative. The action that does him in (meant to interpreted in multiple ways) is his use of a cruel branding iron — "That means it belongs to me," he says as he applies the smoldering device to Ward's shoulder.

But that moment and many that follow demonstrate DeMille's profound interest in cinema for all its visual opportunities. Griffith may have brought the camera outdoors and introduced mobile panorama to his audience, but DeMille ventures into the territory of grounded artistry. Looking back on the film in his autobiography, he says that because the plot had such a great possibility for overblown melodrama (a cardinal sin of much silent cinema), he "resolved to direct its acting with great restraint." More than the image of a branding, DeMille is interested in the image of hot steam wafting off the heated iron from off-screen and slowly and fluidly entering the frame. He utilizes lighting is a painterly fashion, such as in the film's most famous shot, where Edith fires a gun at Tori and he falls to the floor against a back-lit rice paper screen, his shadow slumping downward and leaving a trail of blood behind. Even when DeMille does venture into the wider and more expansive shots (as in the film's culminating moments set in a courtroom full of angry townspeople), there is an authority over the images that one might expect from an august craftsman instead of a relative newcomer who'd only been releasing films as a director for two years.


Sam Juliano,  09 June, 2009  

Of course Hayakawa is probably most fondly remembered as the Japanese commander in Lean's THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, where he played a most complex character. But there's no doubt that THE CHEAT should be greatly admired, as it challenges for the title of "Greatest De Mille Film Ever." I dare say (and I do believe my colleague Allan Fish concurs, although he may opt for SIGN OF THE CROSS) it is De Mille's masterpiece, and as you so aptly and eloquently pose:

"With swiftness and grace DeMille impressively merges the two crucial elements so often undefined in early cinema — narrative and photography."

This admittedly melodramatic and lurid tale is almost unavoidably another prime subject in the early twentieth century racism that afflicted so many aspects of American arts and culture, particularly the cinema. You of course are quite right to point to the parallels to BIRTH OF A NATION, which does trump this film by a distance in this regard, in some measure for the point you bring out here: the casting of Hayakawa. For years the Hal Roach OUR GANG comedies presented 'racial stereotypes' that were reviled by a number of people, but the cast themselves claim they were treated as well as the whites.

I like the point you bring out about lighting in a painterly fashion and I particularly love this metaphorical observation:

"More than the image of a branding, DeMille is interested in the image of hot steam wafting off the heated iron from off-screen and slowly and fluidly entering the frame."

You are to be applauded for examining this little-seen films that stands on the early fringe of silent cinema, and again for the fascinating historical perspective.

Sam Juliano,  09 June, 2009  

It's interesting, T.S., that you've spurred me on to look at references now on Hayakawa's career. Although this was his second film, he apparently left Hollywood in 1921 due to a bad business deal, and free-lanced in France and Britain, serving as a journeyman until that aforementioned triumphant return in 1957, a late-career triumph that he claims was "the high point of his career."

But I don't think he ever topped what he did in THE CHEAT.

Tomorrow, I'll back track to the previous review.

T.S. 10 June, 2009  

Thanks for your thoughts, Sam. I'm thrilled to hear you'd dare call The Cheat DeMille's masterpiece. There are a few films of his I still need to see before I could come down one way or the other; but suffice it to say I was wholeheartedly impressed with this film. If it weren't for what I feel are slight slips in control toward its end, I'd have given it five stars.

I agree too on what you have to say about Hayakawa. Thanks too for acknowledging its little-seen status. Is this not among the best silent performances? I was shocked to see such subtlety for a silent film; DeMille made the right call it cutting off the criticism of melodrama by forcing everything to play out low-key, and I think it goes to Hayakawa's credit that, in 1915, he was able to make produce such a subtle performance.

Perhaps we can create some sort of movement to have people start watching this again.

Anonymous,  11 October, 2009  

I strongly disagree with the core of your argument.

"The Cheat seems to come out ahead of the curve, precisely because its Asian character is not played by a white man (as was the custom of the day, and as Griffith employs in Blossoms) but instead played by Hayakawa..."

Not only is this comment it is point blank, infuriating. We should not be rewarding racist filmmakers for their ability to be less harsh/overt in the expression of their racist ideology. It is important that we battle these representations rather than shrug them off as "not so bad" because they "could have been so much worse".

No matter the method of deployment, the central message and effect of The Cheat remains, give reason to social anxieties around miscegenation, women's increased mobility, and xenophobia. Support the racist myth. Issue warnings to women that if they are to exercise independence they will find themselves trapped in a perpetual maze of sexual violence. Continue to breed separation and misrepresentation.

T.S. 12 October, 2009  

Anonymous — Thanks for commenting (albeit anonymously). I understand your concern with my view on The Cheat, which in reality is surprising even for myself. If you follow the line back toward The Birth of a Nation and Broken Blossoms, you'll find that I value the social comment of a film as I determine its inherent caliber, a fact that many film critics avoid. (Most would contend that simply because The Birth of a Nation is a "Big, Important Film" it is a "Great" film. I heartily disagree.)

I believe, as you do, in the power of fighting stereotypes through films. The Cheat is by no means an enlightened film view through the lens of 2009. Its plot is rather ludicrous and derogatory at worst and at the very least offensively xenophobic. And yet—I would contend that it is valuable film both for its efficiency and economy of filmmaking and for casting an Asian in the role of an Asian, as opposed to Griffith's use of a white man in the role of a Asian a full four years later. It may be damned for its morals, but advances, minor as they may be, those should be noted.

Perhaps that's all I should say, because it's the closest representation of my own feelings, were they not adequately expressed in my review. I really do appreciate your comment, however, and would encourage you to check out my other reviews that might be of interest to you — particularly the Griffith films — and comment there. Don't limit yourself to DeMille. Thanks again for your thoughts.

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