Pre-Code Corner: Sins in The Cheat (1931)
One of the captivating traits found in a Pre-Code film is a dark tone, that often reflects a discernible note of danger. I suppose it’s a flair for the dramatics that draws many to the dark side of Pre-Code cinema. There are many such themes of sins and malice found in George Abbott’s The Cheat (1931) .
The alluring Tallulah Bankhead is Elsa Carlyle, an extravagant spender who lives beyond her means and an unsuccessful gambler. She finds herself in debt to the tune of $10,000 one night at a high-end/high-stakes card game, which is more than her husband (Harvey Stephens as Jeffrey Carlyle) can afford. He’s a stockbroker on a tight budget awaiting the next big deal. Outlook grows more grim and perverse when she meets Irving Pichel as Hardy Livingstone.
Livingstone intrigues her high-risk inclinations by welcoming her to his exotic house. He is an international traveler with a specific taste for authentic Japanese decor and antiquities. Oddly, he first shows off his enormous ‘Yama, god of destruction’ statue. It’s a frightening and imposing figure, hidden behind closed doors. He goes further in revealing his secret cabinet of dolls. Initially, she finds this to be a queer but amusing display until he explains the symbol embellished on each as his own Japanese crest.
He claims each doll represents the women in his life:
“I brand all my belongings with it. It means, possess.”
Foreshadowing alerts of strangeness, which lies ahead.
Once again acting impulsively and secretly from her husband’s gaze, her $10,000 debt doubles when she makes a high-risk investment that fails. Desperate, she makes a deal with Livingstone. He’ll give her the money in exchange for her company. While not stated outright, it’s implied his terms demand a currency of sexual favors.
The next day, thanks to her husband’s financial savvy, he lands a million dollar windfall thereby allowing her to repay her debts (after she painfully admits a washed down version of her embarrassing situation). She goes to Livingstone’s house to return his check. But he doesn’t want the terms changed. Cue the strange danger lurking.
The pace picks up now when Livingstone demands payment, despite Mrs. Carlyle returning his money in full. She tells him she would rather end her life than do his bidding. He presents her with a pistol, daring her. In a violent struggle when she refuses to comply with any of his vile absurdity, he rips down her shirt to expose her chest and shoulder. And now for the truly strange, he takes a hot poker from the ready flames and brands her. That’s right, just like his twisted trophy dolls, he burns her flesh with a fire-hot iron on her bare chest as his possession.
I’ll leave you at this jaw-dropping cliffhanger juncture in this bizarre story before revealing any more juicy plot tidbits, including its conclusion. Instead, to whet your appetite, I’ll share my thoughts on why I believe this Pre-Code makes for an interesting screening.
Firstly, I have a personal curiosity for the lure of Tallulah Bankhead. I haven’t seen many of her films but her raspy-voiced confidence and strong screen presence is rather appealing. She immediately comes across as a woman who can hold her own in any situation, and certainly with men. Which is why it is all the more compelling when she demonstrates her authentic portrayal of a flawed character with vulnerabilities. In this film, she does not disappoint.
I appreciated the dynamics between Mr. and Mrs. Carlyle. She is self-aware of her own weaknesses, and there is no doubt of the challenges in their differences. But there is a gentle kindness and respect within their marriage. Evidence of the strength of their relationship is tested and proven by a climatic conclusion via a courtroom trial.
Symbolisms and themes are sprinkled in: racial stereotypes, sex, cheating, secrets, gambling and other addictions, debt and financial woes, domination, misogyny, objectifying, manipulation, and psychopathic violence. I must say the branding scene was uniquely shocking, even for a Pre-Code.
I own a DVD of this film, as part of my Universal Backlot series, Pre-Code Hollywood Collection. Fortunately, I was delighted to discover a free copy on YouTube. Be aware that this is a remake. There are two silent film versions of this movie; with one considered to be lost, and the other directed by Cecile B DeMille in 1915. I encourage you to explore this unusual film, should you steel yourself in preparation for the creepy perversity, and share your thoughts with me here!
–Kellee Pratt for Classic Movie Hub
When not performing marketing and social media as her day gig, Kellee Pratt writes for her own classic film blog, Outspoken & Freckled (kelleepratt.com). Kellee teaches classic film courses in her college town in Kansas (Screwball Comedy this Fall). Unapologetic social butterfly, she’s an active tweetaholic/original alum for #TCMParty, member of the CMBA, Social Producer for TCM (2015, 2016), and busy mom of four kids and 3 fur babies. You can follow Kellee on twitter at @IrishJayHawk66