The Cheat (1931)

GEORGE ABBOTT

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB

USA, 1931. . Screenplay by , . Cinematography by . Film Editing by .

performs a rare lead film role in this juicy pre-Code melodrama. She plays Elsa Carlyle, a high society wife whose stockbroker husband Jeffrey () has yet to make it big financially, but she’s already spending it like it’s going out of style. When she loses ten grand at a gambling table, she signs an IOU and begs her creditor not to tell her husband; she’s volunteering to help a Milk Fund charity and decides to solve her problem by stealing fundraiser money and taking it to a rival stockbroker who gave her a hot tip on a surefire moneymaker.

The plan fails and now she’s really in financial trouble, which is where the lascivious Hardy Livingstone () steps in, a sneaky, sex-crazed adventurer with a penchant for vaguely unspecific Asian décor and servants (eastern cultural elements were frequently employed as markers of a sinister character in old Hollywood films, and it’s unlikely that the fact that everything presented here is a strange mishmash of Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Thai elements would matter much to white audiences watching it). Livingstone owns a collection of dolls that represent the women that he has possessed in his time, each with his signature brand on them, and he is looking to add Elsa to his collection: he offers her the money she needs to get out of trouble and demands only that she spend time with him in return (and makes it pretty clear how he wants to spend that time).

She, with nowhere else to turn, agrees to his bargain before finally deciding to come clean to her husband; Jeffrey writes her a cheque to pay Livingstone back, but the man still wants the fleshly stake that he was promised, and the consequences for crossing him are dire.

The twists are plentiful in this exciting melodrama, which packs quite a lot of plot into 67 compact minutes and features some incredibly stylish scenes: a culturally-themed costume party is in bad taste now, but the ornate costumes and sets do make it one of many highly visually impressive sequences in the film.

Bankhead is a ball of fire throughout, shamelessly powerful in her more outlandish monologues (particularly a fit she throws in a courtroom that could blow every fuse box in the room) but deliciously candid the rest of the time; watching her throw lines over her shoulder with such heavy-lidded ease is a treat, and the modern chemistry she shares with her co-stars in this early era of awkward talkies is really a marvel to behold.

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