review for The Cheat on AllMovie

The Cheat (1915)
by Bob Mastrangelo review

One of the key films from Cecil B. DeMille's silent period, The Cheat was a sensation at the time of its initial release and secured Sessue Hayakawa's status as a major star of the day. It almost goes without saying that a 1915 movie about a Japanese man attempting to possess a wealthy white woman is bound to touch upon some thorny racial issues and have its share of cringe-inducing scenes. But aside from the horror of the branding scene and the hysteria of the climactic courtroom riot, DeMille is more interested in pure melodrama, and few filmmakers in the history of the movies have been so skilled at making melodrama so entertaining. A major reason for the film's effectiveness is the performance of Hayakawa as the villain Tori. While the other actors, especially Fannie Ward, are busy emoting, Hayakawa displays a tremendous subtlety not often seen in films of that period. He often reduces his performance to nuanced body language and eye movement, but it is with those little touches that he gets across more than the rest of the cast combined. At this early stage DeMille was already displaying considerable talent, and the branding scene is a particularly powerful moment in what must have been shocking to audiences of the day. It is also worth noting that the Japanese government was so offended by the film that upon its re-release during World War I (when Japan was a U.S. ally), Tori's name was changed to Haka Arakau and his nationality became Burmese.