The Cheat (1915) Director Cecil B. DeMille
Running at just under an hour, The Cheat features three main characters played by stage performer Fannie Ward, her husband Jack Dean, and the famous Sessue Hayakawa. Students of film history will recognize this legendary actor. Hayakawa had a long and storied career in Hollywood, including his brilliant portrayal as Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).
This was the first big breakthrough for DeMille in Hollywood and it explores certain racial anxieties in American society at the time. Fannie Ward is a high society woman in need of money so, under the nose of her unsuspecting husband, she orchestrates a scheme with a Burmese businessmen named Hishuru Tori (later renamed Haka Arakau when the film was re-released in 1918). Things go awry when he demands sexual payment from her, and when she refuses, she shoots Hishuru in the arm. He then brutally brands her like an animal. The film ends in a trial scene. Her husband plans to take the blame but at the last moment she confesses to the scheme and the mob seems ready to lynch Hishuru while shouting all manner of racist epithets.
Naturally, the release of The Cheat caused considerable controversy for its racialized violence. It is a pretty shocking movie today, and perhaps its themes were not too uncommon when considering the films of D.W. Griffith which were released around the same time. All racist tropes aside, The Cheat is an extraordinary study in stylized villainy. Hishuru is capable of wearing the mask of a prosperous Western financier, but beneath this veneer lurks a “foreign” and “suspicious” sexually deviant masochist. I was particularly struck by scenes of silhouetted shadowy outlines concealed behind closed screen doors, creating a mysterious, eavesdropping atmosphere. The Cheat has been remade several times: first in 1923, and then again in 1931 starring Tallulah Bankhead, and in 1937 by French avant-garde auteur Marcel L’Herbier.