Once more--I am thinking of Birth of a Nation--an elegant gesture is executed with deformed limbs. Hishuru Tori (Sessue Hayakawa, his handsome face solemn and cruel) exacts a devilish price from the young socialite, Edith Hardy (Fannie Ward, her own face beautiful, even in its anxiety and terror), who has embezzled $10,000(!) from the Red Cross to make an investment--ending, of course, in disaster, and driving her to ask Tori for the money--which he willingly gives--then brands her, the Buddha gazing down impassively at the vague forms struggling with melodrama.
Kipling’s refrain makes its inevitable appearance: “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” At least not while the West insists that the East can be understood only as a combination of graceful ceremony and barbarism, a solicitous demeanor masking pitiless justice. “Inscrutable” indeed the Orient will be, under these conditions--and with greater legitimacy, given the technical mastery of The Cheat. I saw a tinted print, the blues and reds deeply evocative of night, of mystery, of horrible passion. And the screen is often darkened, the action framed within the frame by slanting bars of light. A striking effect is caused by the use of Oriental screens: Tori and Edith grapple, she shoots him--and the camera cuts to the other side of the screen against which he slumps--where her husband stands frozen—Tori’s blood leaving an accusing ideogram smear. And then the shadows of the bars at the jail--the husband accepting blame for the assault (Tori recovers from his wound)--and the trial, where the branding and the truth are revealed, and the camera scatters at us close-up shots of outraged American manhood, an uproar and near-riot--until the Occident is judged innocent, and the reunited couple, flanked by the cheering crowd, stride from the courtroom toward the camera.
It is as if the breathless headlong rush of a Keystone comedy were re-imagined as a brutal moral tale. And more: It adds the needless slap of race-hatred, in a picture that could have considered much else with its technique, instead choosing merely to titillate--but who am I to judge? Here I am, a willing customer, dazzled by the thing, hoping the producer--Cecil B. DeMille--will continue to explore the visual language of cinema. In its way, The Cheat is even more of an achievement than Birth of a Nation: In its attention to light and shadow, of camera placement and the pacing of each shot--like Cabiria and a few others--it voices its aspirations with a symphonic shout. Again, however, it is the lyrics that trouble me, not the melody.