Subtle Understatement: Sessue Hayakawa

The Cheat
R: Cecil B. DeMille. B: Hector Turnbull, Jeanie Macpherson. K: Alvin Wyckoff. Ba: Wilfred Buckland. D: Fannie Ward, Sessue Hayakawa, Jack Dean. P: Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company. USA 1915

“The silent melodrama The Cheat (1915) was a key film in the early career of Cecil B. DeMille – one that helped establish his reputation as a top-echelon director. According to DeMille biographer Anne Edwards, the film ‘set standards of acting, decor, frame composition and lighting which were not surpassed for years.’ Although D. W. Griffith‘s The Birth of a Nation, released the same year, has received more attention, The Cheat also had a profound influence on filmmaking, especially in its innovative camera techniques and ‘sexually charged content’. The movie was named to the National Film Registry in 1993.
Re-released during World War I, when Japan was an ally of the U.S., The Cheat so offended members of the Japanese government that Tori’s nationality was changed to Burmese and his name became Haka Arakau. A master of subtle understatement at a time when most film acting was flamboyantly histrionic, Hayakawa achieved stardom thanks to his oddly sympathetic performance in The Cheat and an earlier performance in The Typhoon (1914). He formed his own production company in 1920 and enjoyed international success as a leading man and character actor. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).
The Cheat, which was remade several times but never to greater effect, won much critical praise for DeMille, especially for its striking visuals and low-key lighting effects. ‘Never before has the skillful play with light and shade been used to such marvelous advantage’, wrote one reviewer. But the director himself was less impressed by great reviews than in popular acceptance. After The Cheat enjoyed only lackluster box-office success in the U.S., DeMille reportedly dismissed it (despite its commercial success in France). Film historian Kevin Brownlow has written that, after the disappointing reaction to The Cheat and other innovative efforts of his early career, DeMille ‘lowered his sights to meet the lowest common denominator, so the standard of his films plummeted.'”
Roger Fristoe
Turner Classic Movies