“In Paris this week, a movie theater has become an art school,” wrote the famous French writer Colette, reviewing Cecil B. De Mille’s The Cheat (1915) for the French magazine Excelsior in 1916. “Every evening, writers, painters, composers, and dramatists come and come again to sit, contemplate, and comment, in low voices, like pupils,” she observed. A noted sensualist, Colette loved the film’s “beautiful luxuriating in lace, silk, furs—not to mention the expanses of skin and the tangle of limbs in the final melee, in which the principals hurl themselves unrestrainedly against each other.”For Colette, and for many other writers and intellectuals of the period, The Cheat was a major step forward for cinema on a technical level, and De Mille’s stark, elegant imagery is still exciting, while the politically incorrect storyline still provides a potent erotic kick. About the film’s star, Sessue Hayakawa, Colette wrote that his “powerful immobility is eloquence itself.”We first see the film’s female star, Fannie Ward, as a pampered rich woman in a peacock-like black feather hat who pets a large black dog and rises from an animal-print chair. Right away, De Mille shows us visually that she’s a sexual animal underneath her society lady trappings.De Mille introduces us to Ward’s stockbroker husband (Jack Dean), and then matches the first shot of Ward with this shot of Hayakawa getting out of his car. He’s as beautifully and flashily dressed as she is, and De Mille links them together as mutual lovers of style and sensuality.Hayakawa’s Burmese ivory king is being feted by Long Island society, and he has made a friendship with Ward, whose husband has been neglecting her. When they go outside to a bazaar as a kind of couple, Ward spreads her coat as if she’s a butterfly, and De Mille gets to display just how expert he is with crowd scenes, even at this early date.Back inside, Burmese dandy and American big spender continue to cozy up. Hayakawa shows Ward how he brands his figurines with an ivory stick: “That means it belongs to me,” he says via intertitle. De Mille leaves no doubt that this shaft of carved tusk is meant to be a phallic symbol. The tension between Hayakawa’s focused shrewdness and Ward’s pretty obliviousness starts to gain real sexual force.Ward semi-understands his meaning and turns away from him. At this point, Hayakawa’s face takes on a look of ambivalence, one of the grace notes that make his performance so modern. By comparison, Ward’s husband Dean is such a bad actor that sometimes it’s hard to tell just what he’s doing, but Hayakawa is so precise that you can practically see his thoughts.The foolish Ward realizes that she has lost a large sum of Red Cross money, and after she faints, Hayakawa takes advantage of the situation and cops a feel of one of her breasts.He then scares her with talk of scandal, and De Mille uses part of the screen to show us a newspaper headline she imagines as he talks.Ward’s husband gets her the money in time, and Ward tries to buy Hayakawa off, but he sees this as a cheat, and he exacts his revenge, heatedly slamming her down on a table. Hayakawa then brands her on the shoulder, a sign that he “owns” her.It’s also a sign of how De Mille is playing to the sinful proclivities of his intended audience. In De Mille’s films, scenes of sexuality and sadism could be merrily indulged, so long as they were later renounced in the last reel for the uplift of religion and moral rectitude. The Cheat vividly illustrates this two-faced maneuver, with the lurid act of sexual violence eventually answered with moral outrage and meted justice in the final courtroom scene. This was a shrewd, commercially lucrative trick that DeMille put to use in his later Biblical epics.However, DeMille’s duplicity is no stain on the integrity of Hayakawa’s complex portrayal of sexual torment. After he’s done the dirty deed, Hayakawa looks ambivalent, even pained by his act. His gestures and body language underline the shame his character feels for both wanting this woman and also being so much like her, a slave to his own dark, wanton impulses.De Mille provided Hayakawa with the framework for this dynamic in the early scenes, but at this point, it’s clear that Hayakawa’s intelligence is taking his character to another level. Through Hayakawa’s performance, what could have been a racist “yellow peril” caricature becomes a complex portrait of a man who dishes out punishment to a woman because he feels it’s what he himself deserves.De Mille’s streamlined, rough-and-ready direction, coupled with the sensitive performance of Hayakawa, make this classic film both a mandatory stop in film history and a nuanced look at sexual predator and prey. Made almost a hundred years ago, it still burns like a red-hot ember.Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in The House Next Door, Bright Lights Film Journal, Senses of Cinema, and the L Magazine, among other publications.Watch The Cheat on Fandor.
Vintage East-West S&M: Cecil B. De Mille’s “The Cheat”
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