The Cheat (Cecil B. De Mille / U.S., 1915):

A prurient daydream, a Polaroid of Victorian hysteria, and as influential a junction of theater and photography as that other 1915 racist thunderbolt. A puddle of Caravaggio light introduces the Japanese magnate (Sessue Hayakawa), engrossed in his hot-iron branding apparatus -- a sort of condensed Eastern stillness, contrasted with the bratty flea-hopping of the Long Island socialite (Fannie Ward). The heroine is a featherheaded fritterer, her stockbroker husband (Jack Dean) toils overtime so she can afford the latest bourgeois-vamp fashions. When she loses ten grand in a crummy investment, Hayakawa seizes debt as the key to seduction and lends her the money in return for the promise of a sexual twirl. Cecil B. De Mille may quote Kipling’s "East is east..." axiom of racial separatism, but he also understands the cinematic zones where the dueling impulses of prudery and titillation meet. The notion of a dainty pale shoulder on the receiving end of a lusty foreigner’s blistering iron is both gloating threat and lascivious fantasy: Hayakawa shows Ward his smoldering stamp ("That means it belongs to me"), the deed itself is staged with a figure squirming below the frame as steam rises into view (cf. Sansho the Bailiff). Another coup: She shoots her ravisher, who leaves a runny stain of blood as he slumps against a rice-paper screen, all silhouetted from an outside vantage. Hayakawa’s cool sensuality complicates the Yellow Peril boogeyman, makes the character amused, elegant, sinuous. Nevertheless, the crowds are all too ready to howl for foreign blood when Ward reveals her marked flesh at the tribunal. De Mille restores (re-marries, really) the conventional couple, the intruder’s repulsion/eroticism is left to be explored by... Frank Capra? (Indeed: The Bitter Tea of General Yen.) With James Neill. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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