The Cheat ★★★½

DeMille is known for his epics today, which is fine because they have their qualities, but one of the problems with deciphering epics is the filmmaking craft is often so much comes down to technical bits that it can be harder to understand the relationship to Art (at least in the reign of aesthetic hierarchies). Thus seeing DeMille do melodrama, and a really good one at that, reveals two things here: his really dynamic use of lighting and his strong narrative construction. Compared to the film’s double feature partner The Typhoon, each scene has a narrative purpose, pushing the plot along and using inventive camera techniques like the juxtaposition of newspaper headlines to communicate narrative elements clearly and quickly. The subject matter of the plot, an unfortunately common yellow-scare drama of the time, won’t win any awards for progressiveness (“don’t fall in love with an Asian man or you’ll get branded!”), but DeMille’s use of shadows creating a dynamic sense of composition that from my research was more or less unparalleled at the time. Not only does light create a new sense of ecstatic images (the use of the Hara falling against the door in complete shadow a highlight), but as Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson point out, “an illusion of greater depth.” Even in Griffith’s films, there is a sense that the entire stage works in very pictorial sense (the camera is here, the action happens there). But with the “Lasky lighting” in The Cheat, you feel a more three dimensional image, that these characters actually might live and work within a space instead of a stage, as DeMille can work around his stage instead of just keeping it on a separated space—finally the camera becomes part of the action instead of simply its objective observer.