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.
08 June 2009
d. Cecil B. DeMille / USA / 59 mins.