Cheat, The (1915)

US / 59 minutes / bw silent / Jesse L. Lasky, Paramount Dir & Pr: Cecil B. DeMille Scr: Hector Turnbull, Jeanie Macpherson Story: Hector Turnbull Cine: Alvin Wyckoff Cast: Fannie Ward, Sessue Hayakawa, Jack Dean, James Neill, Yutaka Abe, Dana Ong, Hazel Childers, Judge Arthur H. Williams.

The Cheat 1915 - 0 opener

Society wife Edith Hardy (Ward) spends her days spending money on herself—even at the expense of the servants’ wages—and knocking around with Japanese ivory merchant Hishuru Tori (Hayakawa), who has the habit of branding all his possessions with a hot iron to show his ownership of them. In vain does stockbroker husband Richard “Dick” Hardy (Dean) complain that, until his current investments come to fruition, they can’t afford her extravagant lifestyle. There arrives the day when he puts his foot down: the latest wildly expensive dress she’s bought must go back to the store, or else. She pleads that she needs the garment to retain her social standing as Treasurer of the Red Cross Fund—a fund that’s doing very well, because it now stands at $10,000.

So irate is Edith over Dick’s veto of her dress purchase that that night, during a soirée the Hardys throw, she listens to braggart younger stockbroker Jones (Neill) and his disparagements of her relatively stodgy husband. What, she inquires, could Jones do with a stake of $10,000? “Let me invest it in United Copper tonight,” he replies, “and I’ll double your money tomorrow.” So she raids her wall safe for the Red Cross Fund’s $10,000—no one will ever know, after all.

A few nights later at the Red Cross fundraiser ball, held at Tori’s house, Edith receives two blows. First, the worthies of the fund have decided that “We’ll send the fund to the Belgians tomorrow.” Second, for all his blowharding, Jones’s investments have already lost the $10,000. Luckily—as it were—Tori is on hand. He gives her a check for the embezzled $10,000 on condition that tomorrow she grants him . . . favors.

The Cheat 1915 - 1 The calculating sexual predator Tori

The calculating sexual predator Tori (Sessue Hayakawa).

The next day, accordingly, Edith pays off the fund and prepares to go keep her appointment with Tori. But then Dick arrives with the great news that his investments have borne fruit; the Hardys have more money now than they can easily spend. Edith chooses the moment to beg $10,000 from him—in order, she claims, to pay off her bridge debts. Dick lets her write the check but, correctly suspicious of this limp excuse, follows her as she hotfoots it to Tori’s house.

There, Tori refuses to accept the money, demanding that instead she put out for him, as promised. When she threatens, “If you keep me here—I’ll kill myself,” he cynically hands her the knife, knowing she doesn’t have the guts to follow through on her threat. Thwarted by her continued refusal, he throws her face-down onto the table and brands her left shoulder; she is, after all, his purchased possession.

Somehow Edith gets hold of a gun, and shoots Tori once, twice. He falls to the floor, wounded but far from fatally so. Edith flees; Dick arrives and tries to help Tori; Tori’s goons rush in and seize Dick; then come the cops; and Dick, having ascertained from Tori what has gone down, to protect Edith maintains that he was the one who shot Tori—a pretense to which Tori, perhaps hoping for a second try at Edith once Dick’s out of the way, acquiesces.

Edith rediscovers her love for her stuffy—but now imprisoned—husband; for his part he insists she keep quiet about her role in the shooting. Even so, she goes to Tori and offers him first money and then the infinite pleasures of her fleshly charms if only he will drop the case. His response is a sour “You cannot cheat me twice.”

At the trial, Dick refuses to go along with prosecution’s implication that he shot Tori because Tori was fooling around with his wife. The spectators make it clear, though, that they reckon this is what has happened and, since Tori is a Jap rather than a God-fearin’ white American, they become restive. Dick is found guilty, but then a shrieking Edith forces her way to the front of the court and, to the incredulity of the judge (Williams), whips off as much as is decorous of her top to display Tori’s brand on her shoulder. That’s enough for the spectators, who start a near-riot in court with a lynchin’ of the uppity Jap clearly in mind . . .

The title and some of the intertitles subvert the seemingly racist import of these latter stages of the onscreen action. It’s made very clear that, no matter how scurrilous Tori might be, it’s Edith who’s the cheat—cheating Tori in their contract, Dick in his efforts to provide for them both, the donors to the Red Cross Fund, even her unpaid maid (uncredited). Tori’s a bad hat, to be sure, but Edith is a badder one, and it’s only the righteousness of her husband that eventually makes her see the error of her ways.

The Cheat 1915 - 4 living dead joke

Edith (Fannie Ward) becomes quite desperate.

A major subtext of The Cheat obviously concerns morality. An interesting distinction is made within the drama, one that is carefully underemphasized. When Edith essentially offers to sell her body to Tori for not so much the $10,000 as in order to conceal the shame of her embezzlement from a charitable fund, it’s not difficult to judge her as someone very morally compromised. Yet a while later, when she makes the same offer of her body to Tori as an inducement to drop the case against her husband, the moral issue is considerably more nuanced: this time it’s less a matter of her whoring herself than of her sacrificing herself for the sake of someone whom she has discovered once again that she loves.

There’s not much sense in discussing the merits of the acting in elderly silent movies like The Cheat—it’s sort of like comparing the thespian capabilities of Marcel Marceau with those of Judi Dench. In this instance most of the acting is as understated as it can reasonably be within the context of the medium—Hayakawa is especially good in this respect, conveying more in the twist of a lip than most silent-movie actors can in a prolonged scenery chew. Ward, however, is more of the old school, and this is obviously the way director DeMille wants her to be: as her distress mounts, with her tumblingly disheveled hair and her black-rimmed staring eyes, Edith comes more and more to resemble a refugee from the much later Night of the Living Dead (1968).

The Cheat 1915 - 2 Edith and Tori see Dick silhouetted by the screen

Edith (Fannie Ward) and Tori (Sessue Hayakawa) observe Richard’s shadow on the screen.

There’s some great cinematography here. I very much liked the explorations of light and shadow during Dick’s jail time, when he seemed pinned by the patterns the shadows of the bars threw across him, but best of all is the sequence at the Red Cross Fund ball in Tori’s house when Edith is explaining her predicament to her putative savior. First we see, through a paper screen, the silhouette of the blameless Dick and then that of Jones as he tells Dick of his losses; the reference is, clearly, to traditional Japanese theater, and the comportments of Tori and Edith as they eavesdrop on and soon, in Edith’s case, start to panic over the content of the conversation, are reminiscent of countless classical Japanese prints. Seconds later, as Tori describes to Edith the consequences should her crime become public knowledge, we see a different symbolism, as a newspaper headline—SOCIETY WOMAN STEALS RED CROSS FUND—forms a backdrop to an almost balletic composition of their two forms.

The Cheat 1915 - 3 Tori and Edith, he threatens her with the headline

Tori (Sessue Hayakawa) spells out to Edith (Fannie Ward) the potential consequences of her crime.

The Cheat was reissued in 1918. Japanese-Americans had complained about what they perceived as racial stereotyping, and Paramount backed down. The Japanese Hishuru Tori became the “Burmese ivory king” Haka Arakau in the intertitles and other print elements of the movie, even though this made a cultural scramble of much of what we see of Hayakawa’s behavior and accoutrements. It’s the 1918 version that survives today. The tale was remade as The Cheat (1923) dir George Fitzmaurice, with Pola Negri, Jack Holt and Charles de Rochefort; as The Cheat (1931) dir George Abbott, with Tallulah Bankhead, Harvey Stephens and Irving Pichel; and as Forfaiture (1937) dir Marcel L’Herbier, with Lise Delamare, Victor Francen and—once again—Sessue Hayakawa. (The 1912 Australian movie called The Cheat, dir Alfred Rolfe, is unrelated.)

In 2010 The Cheat (1915) was added to the National Film Registry.

This is a contribution to the Past Offences #1915book signup.

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On Amazon.com: The Cheat.

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13 thoughts on “Cheat, The (1915)

  1. John, this is absolutely and without any shadow of a doubt one of your best written pieces ever at this blog, and perhaps the most thorough and engaging consideration of this silent film landmark by an icon of the industry. I have seen it, and consider it one of DeMille’s greatest works – some have it at the very top of his output to be sure- yes the stilted acting of the period is worthy of at least a bit of derision – still I was startled and amused at that Night of the Living Dear quip. Morality does indeed play a major part in these proceedings. As a major fan of Hayakawa, I have always marveled at his successful transition to talkies, and try and convinced myself that he is the same actor who turned in that marvelous and moving performance in Lean’s The Bridge over the River Kwai.

    • Thanks for dropping by, John, and for the kind words!

      Your line about Marcel Marceau and Judi Dench may be the funniest thing I’ve read all month.

      I was trying to get across that it’s unfair to judge 1915 screen acting by even that of the 1930s — they’re just completely different arts.

  2. Terrific write up, John. The moral considerations and cutural context sound really interesting. I’d heard if this film but have never seen it. Great screen shot with the shadow…

    • Thanks for dropping by, and for the kind words, Jacqui!

      Great screen shot with the shadow

      Yes. And in that little sequence there’s some fine choreography of the two characters in the foreground.

  3. This is a wonderful article, John:)) I really enjoy reading your blog as I am no expert regarding films and learn a slice about their history and what goes into making them through reading your blog. And this is a delight about The Cheat – particularly as you go to the effort of producing the relevant screen shots. Like John above, I also appreciated the line about Judi Dench and Marcel Marceau…

    • Thanks for dropping by, and for the kind words. The compliment means a great deal, coming as it does from your good self.

      Sessue Hayakawa is SUCH a good actor, and I can only imagine how terrific he is in this film.

      Yes: he manages to give a really nuanced performance, which must have been incredibly difficult to achieve in silent movies. It’s obvious why he made the transition to talkies so easily, I think: he’d already mastered that art.

  4. The only DeMille silent I’ve seen is ‘Carmen’, also from 1915, which I thought was great – sounds as if it would be well worth seeing this one too, despite the racial stereotyping. I’ve just realised that I haven’t seen any of the versions of this story. Great review, John.

    • Thanks for dropping by and for the kind words, Judy. I have the 1915 Carmen on my list to be watched and then probably written up on this site, but I’ve no idea when I’ll get round to it. I need to finish the current book (just a couple of weeks to go, I’m hoping!) and then there’s a whole host of movies all clamouring for me to watch them.

  5. Pingback: ‘I’ve been severely touched’ #1915book results | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

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