Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Director's Chair: Cecil B. DeMille - The Cheat

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Director's Chair: Cecil B. DeMille - The Cheat

I've been aware of The Cheat for a while, but never saw it until the other night. The massive coffee table tome "The Chronicle of Cinema" contained a brief write-up on the movie, accompanied by a lurid-looking still of a dissheveled Fannie Ward sitting on the edge of a bed where Sessue Hayakawa lay sprawled out, apparently slain by his illicit lover. I think this was my first exposure to the notion that DeMille made successful films outside of the epic genre, but in fact many of his teens and twenties movies were melodramas on the subject of "a wayward wife whose impulsive indiscretions propel her into public scandal, private shame and marital turmoil" (according to the Kino website). But his treatment of this theme is no less flamboyant and entertaining than his approach to the most lavish biblical spectacle and just as in Carmen, the potential misogyny of DeMille's penchant for cheating, manipulative woman is tempered by his complete identification with the female point of view.


When we are introduced to Ward's character, her tony-sounding name Edith Hardy appropriate for the Long Island "smart set" she circulates in, she is immediately portrayed as being spoiled, careless, and shallow. She borrows money from her husband and spends it freely, ordering servants about, and cavorting with young men like the ambiguously Oriental ivory trader who has moved into the neighborhood. (This man is played by Sessue Hayakawa, a Japanese actor - who later appeared as the camp commandant in The Bridge on the River Kwai - but on a 1918 re-release, the character was described as Burmese in the film's titles so as not to offend America's WWI ally Japan).

Despite the negative characterizations of Edith, culminating in the moment when she "borrows" money meant for a Red Cross charity to gamble on the stock market, she dominates the scenario. Her husband is responsible but a bit of a bore, while Hayakawa's character is intriguing but contains hints of exotic menace which eventually become overt. Edith, presumably like the audience, is caught between the desire for excitement offered by the foreigner and the sense of moral responsibility evoked by her straight-laced husband...a dilemma which DeMille seems to share in his films, balancing garish (and often highly erotic spectacle) with a perhaps hypocritical "moral." It could be said that Edith is a gal after DeMille's own heart.

Eventually, Edith becomes fully deserving of our sympathy, but only once she's been put in her place (think Scarlett O'Hara and other strong, selfish women - once known unreservedly as "bitches" - who are at once exemplars of their audience's Id and sacrificial lambs to the audience's Superego). Once her investment turns rotten, Hayakawa's wealthy but decadent bachelor is able to blackmail her into sleeping with him which, of course, she just barely manages to avoid (but only by shooting him). Edith's husband takes the fall for her, the case goes to trial, and unsurprisingly, all turns out well in the end - the white audience and jurists of the courtroom exploding in violent fury at Hayakawa when they discover the truth.

The treatment of this character, and Hayakawa's performance, are intriguing. One could easily contrast Griffith's more sensitive - and radical - treatment of race in Broken Blossoms. But one could also point out that Griffith's own portrayal of the "Yellow Man" as a harmless little Buddhist is patronizing, and further observe that he cast a white actor (Richard Barthelmess) to play an Asian, whereas DeMille engages Hayakawa for what turns out to be the best performance in the film - and one of the more convincing, lived-in performances in silent cinema. The Kino blurb tells us that Hayakawa went on to become a preternatural Valentino, and speculates - rather presumptively, perhaps - that he "tapped into a vein of post-Victorian female masochism, eroticism and fashionable Orientalism of the day, fulfilling many women's taboo desires to be seduced and possessed by a man of another race."

The Kino review goes on to note that "cinematographer Alvin Wyckoff and designer Wilfred Buckland, who had previously worked under legendary stage producer David Belasco, improvised a form of minimalist, Rembrandt-like lighting that bathed the characters in darkness but for a single source of illumination from the side." This would seem to be a mark against DeMille's auteurism - implying that the director had little involvement in the film's formal inventions. And yet: before reading this, I had already noted a similar effect, perhaps less intricate and subtle but no less marked, in Carmen, which was released and presumably produced before The Cheat. Could it be that Wyckoff and Buckland worked within the parameters of DeMille's vision after all?

At any rate, this visual scheme is of a piece with DeMille's laser-like focus on what matters to the audience: in other cases the spectacle or the surroundings, in this the character. It points to an elemental aspect in his conception of filmmaking and suggests some reasons for his uncanny ability to entertain.

Previous: Carmen

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