Wednesday, June 4, 2008
The Cheat (Cecil B. DeMille, 1915) A (x2)
In 1915, D.W. Griffith released The Birth of a Nation, which is widely considered one of the most important films during the silent era (technique wise, anyways). I'd wager that Cecil B. DeMille's breakthrough, The Cheat, is probably just as important and a hell of a lot more fun. It's 60 minutes of pure adrenaline that doesn't waver throughout it's long runtime. The Cheat is about a spoiled woman (Fannie Ward) who steals money from a fundraiser to try to make money on an investment opportunity. When the investment tanks, she is forced to borrow money from her Burmese businessman friend (Sessue Hayakawa) who, in return for the loan, wants sex. She tries to pay him back when her husband's own investment comes in, but he doesn't want the money and literally brands her like a cattle when she refuses. The Cheat is a shocking movie, especially for 1915, and as technically superior as anything from the late silent era. The editing isn't as crisp or exciting as the endings to Griffith's Intolerance or Broken Blossoms, but it's an upgrade compared to a lot of other films of the teens. There are fewer long shots and long takes and more cut ins and close ups than I would have expected. Sessue Hayakawa gives such an incredible performance that I'm surprised he doesn't receive more praise for it. He's subtle in a way that many silent stars aren't, but he's not so subtle (like in Broken Blossoms) that you don't see anything happen. It's the type of performance you wish to see in every silent movie but rarely ever do. The first time I saw The Cheat I thought that Fannie Ward was super over the top and not an example of great acting. This time around I thought Fannie Ward was a hell of a lot more interesting. Sure, she's still way over the top, but from her first scene you understand exactly who she is. You can almost hear her voice when she's telling her husband that she needs a bunch of new dresses for the upcoming charity events. And that last scene in the courtroom- scandalous!