The Cheat Reviews
I liked this movie a lot, because I was really amazed at the treatment Hollywood gave to the Asian character. He was treated very humanely and I guess the whole Evil-Asian propaganda thing hadn't quite kicked in yet in Hollywood. Instead, Hollywood was turning stuff out like this and, another great example, Broken Blossoms, with Lillian Gish. The Asian actor, Sessue Hayakawa does SUCH a great job here, shining every scene he's in. Hayakawa amazingly, later on went on to appear in Bridge On The River Kwai with Alec Guinness!!
Before I comment on the positive aspects of this film, let's look at how this film can be regarded as racist. Since this is American cinema in its early years, most of the cast and background characters are played by white men and women. The main villain of the film happens to be Asian, as well as the villain's two sidekicks. He is labeled something along the lines of the king of ivory for the region. It just seems out of place that the only foreigners in this film happen to be the villains of the film, depicted as sneaky, conniving businessmen hungry for power and sex. The only Asians in the film, and they are depicted as monsters, and the activities these men engage themselves in definitely does not reflect the behaviors of all Asians at the time when this film was released. This film is very close to straight up chastising Asians; not okay.
This next point could be because I was zoning in and out the day we were watching it, but I was constantly asking myself questions about the narrative since it was a little complex while focusing on money as what would later be called a MacGuffin. We also have more characterization even if it is just from title cards which we have to read dialogue from. The leading lady is a gold digger, spending money she doesn't have and using a large donation for her personal needs. Her husband is a passive man and a hero, letting people (including his wife) push him around but having a kind heart when he takes the blame for a crime his wife had committed. Sadly we don't get that much character knowledge about the villain aside from the fact that he doesn't like to be cheated, and that he'll make things worse for the lady and her husband simply because he can.
I praise this film for exploring great concepts of lighting as well as using more depth with the cinematic space compared to films by Melies, whose films seem very two-dimensional (although they're not exactly narratives like The Cheat). The Cheat is definitely a film you should see if you want to study film, filmmaking, learn about film history, etc etc.
As treasurer of the local Red Cross Edith is entrusted with all of their funds at which point they have $10,000 readied to be presented to the national organization at the next gathering. I think you can see where this is going as sure enough, Edith takes the money and give it to her friend. As if on cue, during the very next social party the friend arrives despondent and informs her that the company has collapsed and all the money is lost. Edith panics and eventually collapsed.
Fortunately, or rather most unfortunately for Edith, at the time this news arrives she is being romanced by a rich Japanese ivory trader named Tori played by the legendary Sessue Hayakawa. Tori is a major power player in the upper ranks of the rich elite in New York and he has serious designs on Edith. He uses this opportunity to pressure Edith into having an elicit affair with him if he pays off her debt and avoids the massive social embarrassment that would ensue if the news would become public. Edith, who initially was very entranced by Tori, now senses great menace but reluctantly agrees.
Edith returns home feeling rather empty and lifeless. Her husband bursts in and informs her that all of his investments have paid off big time and not only are they now very well off, but they are incredibly rich. Edith is at first elated but then the memory of the incident plays upon her mind and she falls back saddened. Her husband takes obvious note of this reaction and Edith quickly makes up a story about losing $10,000 in a bridge game. Her husband is suspicious but gives his wife the a check to cover the amount.
Edith later sneaks out of the house and meets up with Tori at his house. Tori has been calling her repeatedly wondering why she hasn't come over and Edith hopes that she can simply pay Tori the money and end the deal. Unfortunately for her Tori rejects the attempt at a pay off and labels Edith a cheat and a liar. What follows next is a very brutal fight as Tori throws Edith around and slams her down onto his desk. He pulls her hair and rips the back of her dress down and then brands her with a hot signature iron that he uses to mark his belongings. As far as he is concerned he has marked her with his symbol and she is now his.
Edith fight off the pain and manages to break away from Tori. She gets a hold of his gun and shoots him in the shoulder. She makes her escape just as her husband arrives who, suspicious as to what his wife's motivations truly are, has just arrived onto the scene. Richard Hardy immediate assesses the scene up and decides to take the fall for his wife when the police arrive. Tori goes along with this as it would mean Richard would be out of the way.
A rather quick but intense court scene ensues in which Richard admits that he shot Tori but refuses to divulge the reason why. The confused jury finally decides to convict him when Edith can take no more and rushes the judges podium. Despite the efforts of the police to quell her, Edith emotionally yells out what really happened that fateful night and to prove her point she pulls down her dress to reveal the brand that Tori inflicted upon her. The courtroom crowd can take no more and angrily rushes the judges podium demanding justice while the police attempt to hold them at bay. The judge throws out the ruling and the Edith and Richard are free to go.
A very early film whose techniques and attention to detail really belies its age. A technical triumph despite its rather mundane settings this film really demonstrates how good a director Demille would turn out to be with some excellent use of shadows and lighting. Then there's the incredible presence of Hayakawa. Although a very early film, Hayakawa quite obviously out acts everybody by actually bringing brooding subtlety to the screen as opposed to the more manic motions and overacting by his co-stars typified in early silent films. In a interview Hayakawa admitted that he tried not to express too openly his emotions but instead intensely thought them. This is really noticeable whenever he is on screen and his presence is quite powerful.
There has also been some labeling of this films having strongly racist overtones. As somebody who has watched a decent amount of early films I really just don't see it. Sure Hayakawa is the menacing villain, but his race is never an equation in the film and doesn't even come up as an issue by anybody in the movie. He is initially shown as an accepted member of the rich elite social circle and people are very much charmed by him. I've seen a number of early murder mystery pictures that I find you could have easily replaced Hayakawa with any typical caucasian actor and the plot and reaction by everybody would be the same. Of course you would be deprived of the great acting by Hayakawa.
But due strong protests by the Japanese government, later prints were changed to identify Hayakawa's character as Haka Arakau, a ivory trader of Burmese descent. But again, race is not really an issue here as it's all about the character to no matter how one labels Hayakawa's character, he's still the same person you see on screen.
An artistically interesting film with some strong acting by Hayakawa who sets the tone for future actors and how they will approach their craft.