The Cheat (1915)
It may be hard to think of it today, but in the early days of American feature films Cecil B. DeMille was considered on par with D. W. Griffith. He was a groundbreaking filmmaker who had as much comprehension of narrative cohesion as Griffith, but with a little more flash. The Cheat is one of his early features that will always stand out. Considered by many to be the film that "made" DeMille it has lost little if any of its power to entertain today. It is salacious, entertaining, fast paced, and positively enthralling start to finish. I would go so far as to call it DeMille's masterpiece and a picture that earns him inclusion into the silent film hall of fame (which even detractors of his sound films should grant him). The film also impressed critics of the time, and served to be an extremely influential film for decades. DeMille used very low key lighting and incorporated telling shadows throughout the picture, something that would be appropriated far more extensively by the German's several years later.
Fannie Ward plays Edith Hardy an irresponsible socialite who finds herself somewhat neglected by her husband. The husband (Jack Dean) is involved in a big investment deal that he hopes will solve all their financial problems and provide the type of life his wife deserves. That type of life is of course being able to spend several thousand dollars on evening dresses, underwear, and hats galore. Edith finds herself attracting the attentions of an oriental ivory man named Tori (Sessue Hayakawa). She thinks of him as something of a friend, a friend with a great deal of money. When Edith foolishly gambles money she was entrusted to hold from a charitable organization she needs $10,000 and quickly. Tori agrees to give her the money but he doesn't want to be repaid with a check, he wants Mrs. Hardy. Now for those watching the film you wouldn't be surprised at this request, what is surprising is Mrs. Ward's refusal. Throughout the film she was quite leading him on and with the neglect of her husband, one wouldn't be surprised for her to jump into bed with this charming and wealthy new suitor. Of course the fact that he happens to be oriental can easily explain her revulsion, but perhaps this woman truly is clueless.
Now when she goes to return his money he doesn't accept it and demands to maker her his possession, going so far as to brand her which is surely one of the most shocking scenes of its day. DeMille spares no expense in their fight, tearing clothes, breaking through doors, shooting, branding, rape, he doesn't let us off the hook. The sensationalism pays off, and he lets another "circus act" appear later in the court room as a would be lynch mob starts charging up to the wounded Tori. When the court scene emerged I instantly recalled Judge Priest (mainly because I watched that film yesterday) but also because they both involve a woman's honor being kept secret even though it would save an innocent man from going to jail. Like that previous film though we can guess whether or not the truth will come out, but in this film the result is far more rewarding. DeMille sets us up for a huge payoff, and in the process examines shallow high society, adultery, the never ending pursuit of wealth, and of course a little bit of morality. This has got to be the finest film I've yet to see from DeMille and melodramatic or not, I highly recommend it to everyone.