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I found this film quite absorbing with a showy performance by Bankhead. She plays the "out-of-control" wife of a loving and up-standing young man (Harvey Stephens). Her gambling debts get her in hock with an untrustworthy admirer (Irving Pichel). Pichel's penchant for the more bizarre aspects of Oriental culture colors his and Tallulah's relationship into multiple arms of scandal. There is a great climax court room scene wherein Bankhead hams it up wonderfully. I'll say nothing more than that "sizzling flesh" is involved here. It must be seen to be believed. The photography and direction is nicely done and for a 1931 film everything moves along quite admirably.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
American Tallulah Bankhead, the sensation of the London stage, signed
with Paramount Pictures in 1931 and her first talkie, TARNISHED LADY
(1931), a Pre-code exposé of love among Manhattan's smart set, wasn't
bad but didn't exactly set the world on fire. For her next, Paramount's
front office decided to dust off the 1915 Cecil B. De Mille blockbuster
THE CHEAT in the hopes that it would do for Tallulah what it did for
Fannie Ward and Pola Negri. Negri made her American debut in the 1923
re-make of this Victorian-era cautionary tale of the price of deceit
and the public lapped it up. Like her first, Tallulah's second film had
Gotham as it's setting but was a bit darker in theme. The sexy sadism
of THE CHEAT puts it in the realm of pulp fiction. A wealthy young
couple, Jeffrey (Harvey Stephens) and Elsa (Tallulah Bankhead) Carlyle
, are brought to the brink of ruin by the wife's selfish recklessness.
While at their Long Island yacht club, Elsa is ogled by Hardy
Livingstone (Irving Pichel), a lascivious roué just returned from an
extended stay in the Orient. Unbeknownst to her husband, Elsa loses big
at the gaming tables and wanders down to the dock where Livingstone
follows and asks if she'd like to see his estate. She accepts but,
incredibly, she's shocked when he makes a pass. Livingstone is
hell-bent on having her and from here on her life starts to spin wildly
out of control. Despite the gossip and the pleading of her trusting and
blindly adoring husband, Elsa continues to tempt fate by (innocently)
associating with Livingstone. Entrusted with the Milk Fund Ball's
money, Elsa secretly risks it all for a sure bet on the stock market.
She loses and, backed into a corner, takes money offered by Livingstone
...on the condition she come to him one night soon. On the very night
the repayment is due, her husband's business acumen makes them rich and
she goes to Livingstone with a check but he refuses the money. Calling
her a cheat he brands her breast and she shoots and wounds him. Her
husband takes the blame but during a climactic court-room scene Elsa
reveals the truth and the authorities hustle Livingstone off before an
angry mob can get to him. Elsa, now a changed woman, realizes the error
of her ways and Jeffrey, still hopelessly in love, tells her to
consider the whole thing only a bad dream.
De Mille's 1915 version of THE CHEAT could have worked in Pre-Code Hollywood. In the original, the sizzling flesh-branding was only metaphor for brutal rape and miscegenation. In 1931 Paramount could have dispensed with metaphor. They didn't, possibly because they felt the paying public wanted to see it as originally written. In the original the villain was a devilishly handsome but fiendish Oriental (Sessue Hayakawa) while here he's a jaded American who picked up a few tricks in the Far East. His incredibly ornate mansion has a statue of Yama, the God of Destruction and a curio cabinet that holds figurines made in the images of the women he's had. The socialite in the original (Fannie Ward) was played as a flighty air-head and it worked. Tallulah, too cosmopolitan for that, played Elsa as self-destructive and slightly unbalanced ...and that worked even better. At one point she admits to her husband she's mad but amends it to "mad about living". Bankhead took a role others had branded as their's and put her own spin on it, giving Elsa real depth. The emotions that flit across her face as she loses at cards and the stock-market convey a woman who has no conception of cause and effect. Pampered, sheltered and spoiled by her husband, Elsa is genuinely surprised when she finds she can't wrap Livingstone around her little finger. She flinches when she sees the statue of Yama ...as if recognizing something in herself. The branding iron scene is still potent and there's an amazing image of Elsa standing dazed with smoking gun and smoking breast. The courtroom scene is where she really gives it all she's got. Coming clean for the first time in her life and realizing the chaos she's caused, her eyes and voice convey rising hysteria. As she rips her bodice open to reveal the brand on her breast (in the 1915 version it was her back) the crowd goes crazy and riots. The ending of the original is a bit more powerful and probably should have been kept. In that one, the crowd tears the villain apart in a savage lynching, but here the police (barely) save him.
Filmed at Paramount East in Astoria, New York, THE CHEAT is opulent and extravagant despite a minimum of sets. A few mansions and the yacht club manage to convey the insulated world of the wealthy. This topic was endlessly fascinating to Depression-era audiences with the Crash of 1929 still fresh in their collective mind. The weak links here are Tallulah's co-stars. There aren't any to speak of, so perhaps Paramount felt Bankhead's name on the marquee was sufficient. Second-stringer Irving Pichel didn't (or couldn't) portray a menacing sexual sadist hiding under a cloak of respectability. This role cried out for a Charles Laughton. The young husband, Harvey Stephens, was fair-to-middling, but someone like Robert Montgomery would have given the role the naiveté and boyishness required. Bankhead actually comes through for the studio and also photographed beautifully. She's got gorgeous gams and titillates with her décolleté gowns, satin robes and slips. At one point she's outrageously garbed as a Siamese Princess for the Oriental-themed Milk Fund Ball. Tallulah would eventually star opposite Charles Laughton and Robert Mongomery respectively in her two final (and best) films before leaving Hollywood in 1932.
The Cheat (1931)
The plot here is wonderfully bizarre and brazen, an early pre-Code film that still has a few creaks and cracks in its production standards. And the leading womanthe "cheat" I supposeis the wonderful Tallulah Bankhead, who is worth it alone.
Everything is pretty well contained here to keep the filming manageable, so there are lots of interior scenes that look and feel like sets, well lit and straight forward. And there are parties and flirting and the suggestion of impropriety left and right. Most of all there is that weird wealth that a few people had in the Depression as the rest of the country is sliding into ruins.
So Elsa (Bankhead) is a profligate partier and gambler, and her husband is a good guy who works too much. That leads, of course, to her finding amusement where she can. And does. But this gets her into money trouble, first, and then into a pact for sex that she doesn't quite realize she will have to follow through on.
A theme in the background, almost pasted on but with a certain amount of intrigue, is a Chinese them. One of the characters is wealthy enough and eccentric enough to live with Chinese decorations and customs. (This is not uncommonsee the bizarre Edward G. Robinson 1932 film "The Hatchet Man" and think also of the mahjong craze of the 1920s.)
Mostly this is about a woman's honor, and her realizing that her craziness has put her in an awful situation. When it comes to a dramatic climax, there is still a final courtroom scene that is pretty wild and fun. Check it all out. It's not a classic, but it's just odd enough and Bankhead just good enough to justify a close look.
In this movie Tallulah Bankhead falls into the clutches of a lecherous
man - honest, you can watch it yourself if think I'm fooling. But, of
course, this was a movie. In real life, if we are to believe tradition
and gossip, Tallulah would have eaten this stiff for lunch and not
missed a round of drinks.
Anyway, she may have been lucky in love but in this picture she was unlucky at cards and ran up a huge gambling debt. The stiff in question, played by Irving Pichel in a sinister turn, offers to bankroll her - and you can guess the price of his largesse. Harvey Stephens plays her trusting doofus husband who buys any excuse she gives him.
"The Cheat" is an interesting melodrama which becomes less so toward the end. It's OK, but the best part is that it gives you a chance to see TB in a starring role and judge her talent for acting for yourself. She gives it her considerable best and chews the scenery at the appropriate intervals. Since she was primarily a stage actress she didn't make that many movies to judge, so watch it if you get a chance.
The ever-mesmerizing Tallulah Bankhead plays herself - a sassy, brassy flapper who has a wonderful handsome husband who loves her, but she wants more, more, more. During the Great Depression, he can't make enough money to afford her luxurious habits. Not only that but she has gotten in way over-her-head with gambling debts - what's a girl to do? In steps Hardy Livingstone, a smooth talker who has an Oriental obsession - as his house, servants, decor and parties all illustrate. He offers to help out with the debt but at a very high price. Nothing you haven't seen before but Tallulah really elevates this to a very enjoyable level, let's face it, she could read a prayer book and make it sound dangerous and sexy. Racy pre-code fun from 1931!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
For once, a remake that is superior to the original! Cecil B. Demille's
1915 version of the same story was campy and boring, although Sessue
Hayakawa was a fascinating presence.
In this film, the motivations of all the characters make more sense. While the husband in the first movie was a sap, the husband in this one is a man who loves his wife and is willing to sacrifice himself for her. The wife in the first film is somebody who loves her self respect, and finally throws it out the window in a grand sacrifice, but the wife in this film is a woman of the world, who wanted to tell the truth from the beginning. The villain in the first film was an inscrutable Oriental. He simply plays by different rules. However, the villain in this one is a lustful, decadent monster, who is also a liar.
George Abbott knows how to move the camera... and gives a fascinating view of the world of the rich... with the decadence just under the surface.
They really don't make 'em like they used to... The closest I have come to the perversion in this film has been David Lynch's Blue Velvet.
Tallulah Bankhead was 29 when she made "The Cheat," in 1931, and she
came to film after a successful theatrical career. Thirteen years
later, she made Lifeboat and looked as if she had aged 30 years in 13.
Bankhead plays Elsa, the adored wife of Jeffrey (Harvey Stephens). She's a compulsive gambler and winds up owing $10,000 (the equivalent of $140,000 in today's money). A man who is obviously after her, Hardy Livingstone (Irving Pichel) gets her the money, but of course he wants payment -- the only kind of payment acceptable from a woman in precode! This is kind of a wild movie which could have been wilder with better casting. Tallulah's supporting cast just didn't cut it. To play the sadistic Livingstone, I would have preferred someone who had a little more bite to him, and Harvey Stephens is plain vanilla. Someone suggested Robert Montgomery for the husband and Charles Laughton for the lecher. I'm not sure she would have gone as far as she did with someone like Charles Laughton. Maybe Cyril Ritchard? Warren William? Tallulah's acting and glamor makes the film interesting to watch, and you'll love the Chinese costume Livingstone gives her to wear for a benefit.
This film was directed by the great Broadway director, George Abbott, who died in 1995 at the age of 107. He's the reason, I think, that this film moves so well, unlike many films of this era where people tend to talk more slowly and the action seems to drag as people get used to sound.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Give Tallulah Bankhead credit for having tried her hardest to break
into the mold of the many exotic actressses suffering in sable in the
early 1930's. Here, she's a darling of society who spends much of her
time gambling, and when she gets a little bit too in debt goes to an
old flame (Irving Pichel) for financial help. He is willing to
agree...for a price, and that makes her his....any time he wants her.
Of course, she's in a supposedly respectable marriage to the very
boring Harvey Stephens, so she refuses, and Pichel responds in the most
vile way possible. As is typical in pre-code melodramas of this sort,
there's always a lethal weapon, and you don't do to Tallulah what he
did to her without some sort of repercussion.
Pichel is one of the most vile villains on screen, having spent much of his career playing creepy characters in movies, a la Peter Lorre. If it wasn't the possessive servant to "Dracula's Daughter", it was Fagin in a low-budget early "Oliver Twist". Here, he plays one of the most nefarious kind of characters-the type that seems civilized on the outside but is truly barbaric inside his soul. There's no remorse for what becomes of this rogue, so he does his job extremely well. Tallulah gets a great dramatic scene in court, proving that even with maudlin and sometimes offensive material, she could make it seem better than it actually was. As with another early pre-code film she starred in ("My Sin"), she was directed by George Abbott, who like Tallulah was more at home on stage where he was a legend.
The fortunate thing about a lot of these pre-code movies which when seen in historical retrospective is that while they are all very similar, many of them are relatively short, usually under 80 minutes, and wrapped up very neatly in a glamorous bundle of furs and high fashion. Tallulah may have not been successful in film (with the exception of Hitchcock's "Lifeboat"), but the legend that is Ms. Bankhead makes these films fun to capture, especially because of their rarity. Fortunately, "The Cheat" has made its way onto DVD, and hopefully her other Paramount films will follow suit.
Tallulah Bankhead made her impact on the stage, not the screen. A
'movie star' is usually the result of the fortunate soul discovered to
have, besides wonderful photogenicity, a distinct look like no other,
and this look sometimes complimented by an unusual manner of speech.
Two out of three ain't bad; but, since the camera didn't love her,
Tallulah didn't stay long in Hollywood. The camera emphasized the
squareness of her head, her hooded eyes, the hardness of her mouth,
images belying the many first-hand reports of her irresistible allure
when young. For me the major treat in watching this movie is the
over-the-top depiction of the lifestyles of the rich and famous - so
prevalent in movies made in Lalaland during the Depression. For
example, the villain's bachelor pad, where Frank Sinatra might blush in
embarrassment, features a curio cabinet with dolls representing female
conquests (there is still an empty shelf for the future) and ornate
Oriental sliding doors which, when opened reveal an Oriental string
quartet reaching to a crescendo.
A favorite quote from her: 'It's the good girls who keep diaries, the bad girls never have the time.'
"The Cheat" is a forgettable pre-Code film starring Talullah Bankhead
as a woman who makes a "deal" with a rich rascal after her gambling
problem lands her in serious money trouble (and potentially even bigger
trouble with her husband), kills him in ambiguous circumstances and
gets away with it. From a pre-Code aspect, her getting away with her
crime is probably the most notable thing about the movie; the rest is
maybe a little racy but fairly tame even compared to other pre-Code
films of its time.
Actually, the most notable thing about the film is that it appears on DVD as a double feature with "Merrily We Go to Hell," an excellent movie and one that is anything but forgettable. If you're going to get that film (and you should), you might as well watch this one while you're at it. Otherwise, I wouldn't bother seeking this one out on its own merits.
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