Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The skill of early DeMille… The Cheat (1915)

Cecil B DeMille is one of those characters it’s hard not to have strong preconceptions about… His reputation for excess and popular film making reflects a long career encompassing many epics both secular and biblical.

He’s the touch point for grandiose and crowd pleasing… and one of Hitchcock’s favourite directors at the same time. As with every success story there’s a lot of skill underlining the reputation.

The Cheat was one of DeMille’s earliest features and, made in 1915, it demonstrates a fair amount of polish and invention. It also deals with “adult” themes in a way that is both startling and surprisingly pragmatic.

The story revolves around a hard-working financier, Richard Hardy (Frank Dean), who is married to a “butterfly” woman who is addicted to the consumption of finery as well as the attention of other men. Edith Hardy, played by Fanny Ward, enjoys a flirtatious relationship with a successful businessman from the Orient, played by the extraordinary Sessue Hayakawa. Originally Japanese, this character was subsequently changed in 1918 to the supposedly Burmese Haka Arakau, following reaction from America’s First World War allies.

As her husband slaves away, Fanny fritters away ordering expensive clothing and generally living la vida loca. Her greed gets the better of her as she decides to use $10,000 dollars of charity money to fund a speculative investment by one of her husband’s colleagues.

Naturally enough, things go awry and she borrows the money from Arakau who, not unreasonably perhaps, expects a little payment in kind… But Joan’s husband suddenly finds success and plugs the dishonest gap in her finances himself. She attempts to clear the debt with Arakau but he won’t have it and is determined to see her honour their bargain and give herself to him. He takes the iron he uses for branding his other possessions and burns a mark on Joan’s shoulder. In the ensuing melee she shoots him.

Richard arrives and immediately assumes the responsibility for the shooting. Will Joan expose the truth to save her husband? Will she finally recover her honour at the expense of her reputation?

The violence in this film is truly surprising. Arakau is relentless in his pursuit of Joan and the branding is uncomfortable viewing. She responds with equal violence and is lucky not to murder the man. Her redemption comes out of this exchange of cruelty and one can’t help but feel uncomfortable about that too. She has led herself down this particular path and the consequences are hers to bear.

Contextual perceptions aside, the portrayal of Araku is difficult to take at face value but his actions are perhaps more a reflection of his character than cultural background. In fact, the violent reaction of the courtroom crowd to the description of his assault on Joan seem more to make the point that racial tolerances were problematic at this stage. Would they have stormed the bench had this been a white man on trial?

But maybe this is giving DeMille too much credit… He certainly does deserve praise for the direction of the film which moves forward with sure-footed purpose and features much excellent camerawork. In a blind-tasting it'd be difficult to place the film as early as 1915, it looks so advanced and all this from a man in only his second full year of film making.

There is superb use of light and one can clearly see the influence on Hitchcock in the moment when Roger finds Araku silhouetted against his paper partition. The shadow is still for a moment and then slides down smearing blood on the paper to show the wounded man in most dramatic fashion.

Of the actors Hayakawa gives the strongest performance and it’s easy to see why he was such a star – good looks and poise, expressive but with enough nuance to evoke sympathetic responses from the audience (and he was certainly very popular with the ladies!).

As the Variety review said at the time " . . . the work of Sessue Hayakawa is so far above the acting of Miss Ward and Jack Dean that he really should be the star in the billing for the film."

Fanny Ward is the weakest lead and betrays her theatrical roots in over-emoting through some sequences. Frank Dean plays her husband well - he’s onto a loser with this role but he does stand up believably for his wayward wife. Dean and Ward subsequently enjoyed a long and stable marriage so there was genuine chemistry in the end!

The Cheat is available in pristine quality from Kino in a double bill with the all together more sensationalist Manslaughter… maybe more on that anon. It’s a demonstration of DeMille’s cinematic skill as he found his feet in the business and maybe, it shows him more concerned with making a point rather than making a fortune? Is The Cheat early American arthouse or just a staging post on the road to the barren lands of the blockbuster?

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