The Cheat (1915) Director Cecil B. DeMille
The Cheat is a simple silent film, running just under a hour long, featuring three main characters played by stage performer Fannie Ward, her husband Jack Dean, and the famous Sessue Hayakawa. Hayakawa had a long and storied career in Hollywood including as the future Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai.
This was the first big breakthrough for DeMille in Hollywood and it plays on certain racial anxieties 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). When things go awry, he demands sexual payment of her, and when she refuses she shoots Hishuru in the arm and is brutally branded 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, perhaps not uncommon when considering the films of D.W. Griffith 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 the veneer lurks a “foreign” and “suspicious” sexually deviant masochist. I was particularly struck by scenes of silhouetted shadows behind screen doors, creating a mysterious, eavesdropping atmosphere. The Cheat has been remade several times: in 1923, and again in 1931 starring Tallulah Bankhead, and in 1937 by French avant-garde auteur Marcel L’Herbier.