Blue Velvet has nothing on the perversity shown in 1933’s The Cheat, starring Tallulah Bankhead.
There will be spoilers in this review.
Elsa Carlyle (played by a throaty-voiced Tallulah Bankhead) is married to Jeffrey Carlyle (played by Harvey Stephens). We get from the first scene in the yacht club that Elsa is a bit wild. She likes to gamble. She has a reputation for taking risks. She sits at the table with the high rollers and is reckless with her bets. Jeffrey is a young up-and-coming businessman, who hasn’t yet made his millions, but he is close! He works hard, he is late to the party at the yacht club, and – from a brief conversation he has with an acquaintance before he enters the party – we know that he and Elsa have been married for about four years, and they are still very much in love, and all of his guy friends tease him about it. Like, Jeffrey enjoys “hanging out” with his wife. They go out to dinner, they go dancing, there is still a heat between them (portrayed very realistically in the film – no euphemism). It’s actually kind of nice. You don’t get the feeling that Jeffrey is a sap, or a weakling, following around his hot-to-trot wife. No. He has some backbone, he knows who she is, and he loves being the one that she has chosen. From Elsa’s side (played very nicely by Ms. Bankhead), we can see, too, that she is madly in love with her husband. She is very tender with him, and sexually responsive – he kisses her and she melts, all that kind of thing.
Okay, so within five minutes the entire relationship is set up.
But this movie is so EFFED UP. Seriously, it is perverse, yo, and you have to see it to believe it.
Here’s a first example. The movie opens with a swank party at a yacht club. It’s some sort of fundraiser, hosted by a notorious local gentleman named Hardy Livingstone (of course that’s his name) played with stiff creepiness by Irving Pichel. He is not a very good actor and here he seems totally out of his depth, but somehow that just adds to the creep-factor. He is stiff, his arms hang at his sides uselessly, like he has no idea how to actually ACT the part of this leering Lothario … so it’s not good acting, but in the end it just makes him seem like a cut-off psychopath and you want to tell Elsa to run for the hills. Not to mention the fact that he spends most of the damn movie in a Japanese kimono.
Dude is a freak.
But anyway, back to the perversity at the heart of this movie: in the first scene, he’s in a tuxedo (he saves his kimono for later), and he is asked to make a welcoming speech to all the wealthy folks attending the fundraiser.
His first line of the speech is something like, “I suppose anything I say right now will seem rather banal …” And there is a snicker around the table, and one guy calls out, “Careful, there are ladies present!” and someone else says, “Nice word!”
What I am trying to say is that the movie opens with a joke about anal sex in the midst of a chi-chi fundraiser. Laughter runs around the room, and Livingstone, the creep, continues, “As I said, it might be banal …” Another burst of knowing laughter. It takes a dirty mind to hear the word “banal” and immediately think of assholes, but that is what the movie does. Everyone in the scene is in on the joke. It’s not a “code”. It’s out in the open.
The moment also sets up his character: a lascivious jaded guy who has traveled the world, and we overhear him saying later, at the same party, how “Oriental women” are the perfect kind of woman. “Not that they are slaves, but they totally understand submission.”
The movie takes no time heating up into its weirdness. Because Elsa overhears the “oriental woman” comment from the local douche while sitting at the blackjack table, she makes a reckless bet. She loses $10,000. Her husband is unaware of this, although we do see him later chiding her on her over-spending. So it is already an issue in their marriage, her lack of frugality, so we know that just going to her husband and saying, “Can I have $10,000?” is not an option. Jeffrey, again, is set up as a man with a backbone, and he seems like a real husband. He’s trying to help her see that they need to hang on just a bit longer, and save, because soon these big deals might come through, and they will then be all set. But for now? Cant we cut back a little, dear?
But Elsa, wild girl, can’t cut back. She overhears the Oriental women are not slaves comment, it gets her goat, and she makes a crazy bet. It is arranged that she will pay the money back the following day, and she is pretty troubled. She has no idea where she will get it.
Livingstone, in his stiff-armed douchebaggery, smells the desperation on her, and naturally he is drawn right to it. He comes up to her and there is some casual banter, and you can see that she (of course, because she’s played by Tallulah) is a woman who knows how to handle men. She’s got the banter down, she has an air of plausible deniability, and yet she also projects a smouldering kind of wild sexuality. In the beginning of the film, we feel that she is in charge of all of that.
By the end of the film, it has all been taken away.
She pays a huge price.
In her conversation with Livingstone, he invites her to come back to his place. She says sure. We have not yet seen her interact with her husband, so it’s not clear what exactly her deal is. She is not a crazy woman – she is not playing her like an out-of-control lush. She’s a dame. Old-school.
So the two go down to the dock in the moonlight (beautifully filmed, on location) and get in his boat and motor away.
Cut to Livingstone’s house, the interior. It is enormous and grandiose. He has two Japanese butlers in kimonos and we see them racing around in a panic because the master has come home soon. Livingstone walks in with Elsa. She oohs and ahhs over the house. She has extravagant tastes herself. Livingstone, though, has a special room he wants to show her. Oooh, you’re such a sexpot, Livingstone, with your flaring nostrils and stiff-armed lack of charm. He slides open two Japanese-style doors and they enter a room which is like something from out of Sho Gun. In the middle of the room is a table, and there’s a metal cannister at the side, and smoke emerges from it. This will become important (in an absolutely horrifying moment – I couldn’t BELIEVE the movie actually “went there”) later – but at the time I thought it might be a tea pot or something. Elsa glances at it and smiles. “Do you smoke opium here?” The banter continues. He opens up a door to the side and there is an enormous many-armed statue of some God of Destruction, and there’s a closeup of Elsa’s face as she takes in the image. It disturbs her. Something, some alarm bell, goes off. But sadly, she ignores it.
Let me talk a bit about Tallulah Bankhead.
She’s wonderful here. She’s got the stoop-shouldered posture of Jean Harlow, and she also reminds me of Patricia Neal a little bit. My cousin Mike has always thought that Patricia Neal reminded him very much of our grandmother – the beloved “Mummy Gina” – and he’s right. Seeing pictures of my grandmother as a young glamorous laughing woman calls to mind these images, of the slim fashionable stoop-shouldered ladies of the past. Not to mention the throaty smoker’s voice. There’s something about Tallulah that could never seem young. I am sure she was a child at some point, but she probably had a middle-aged soul from the beginning. There’s a jutting quality to her chin and her nose that gives her a slightly peaked look. Beautiful, of course, but individual and very much herself. In The Cheat, Tallulah Bankhead is required to go through hell. There is a Doll’s House quality to the character’s journey: an ever-increasing tightness of the ties that bind, much of it having to do with money – and women’s lack of power over their own money (the slightly political underbelly to the film). It is never explicitly stated: Doesn’t it suck that women have to look to men to control their money? But it doesn’t need to be explicitly stated. It is there. Elsa is a smart woman. Yes, reckless. But not a dummy. Not a stupid spoiled child. If she wasn’t 100% reliable on her husband for money, then she might have actually had a chance to develop some financial skills on her own. But the situation as it is set up in society at that time (for many – not all, now – but for many) keeps women down. It’s all about money. Once you have your own cash, your head can clear a little bit, you can look around and think, “Huh. What do I want to do with my life?”
In a way, this is a very radical film.
Tallulah Bankhead starts the film as a breezy dame, although not shallow. Her love for her husband is deep and sweet. And yet there is an inequality there, due to the financial situation. Jeffrey is not a control-freak, and he certainly wants to give Elsa a nice life, he also hesitates to share with her his financial worries – but he knows that they are in this thing together. Can’t we cut back, darling?
By the end of the film, Bankhead has experienced such horror that who knows what the long-lasting effects will be. She will be marked forever by her encounter with Livingstone, and Bankhead plays that transformation like a tiger in a cage. She is marvelous.
Livingstone then brings Elsa over to a cabinet he has against the wall. He wants to show her something. He has been talking about his experiences with women around the world. She banters back. But the banter stops when he opens the cabinet. There are three shelves inside. The middle shelf is empty. The top and bottom shelves are filled with dolls, each one in a different costume (we see geishas, and Indians and frauleins – you get the picture – “it’s a small world after all”), and each doll is on a little square stand. It is very creepy. Livingstone explains that each doll represents a specific conquest. He enjoys commemorating the moment, I guess. Douche. He takes out one of the dolls to show Elsa, and he points out that on each of the stands he has put his “brand”. To show ownership. Like he’s a rancher branding a cow.
Elsa tries to joke about it. She doesn’t feel implicated yet. Okay, maybe she IS an idiot. I’d be out of there so fast.
Eventually, Livingstone takes her back to the yacht club, and poor Jeffrey stands on the dock watching Elsa and Livingstone emerge from the boat. The shot itself is particularly gorgeous – with the moonlight and the sparkling waves and the silhouettes.
Jeffrey is a little concerned (wouldn’t you be?) but Elsa is so breezy and casual, her loyalties so obviously lie with him, that he relaxes a bit. He does say to her, “Livingstone does not have a good reputation with women.” Elsa grabs onto him, laughing. “Do you think I want him? I love you!”
There is a hot scene of the two of them embracing alone on the dock.
The Code, as it solidified, expressly stated that no one kiss could last over three seconds. (Hitchcock got around this, famously, in Notorious, by having Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman kiss for 3 seconds, pull away, speak, whisper, kiss again for 3 seconds, pull back … in a scene that is at once hot and also totally neurotic.) But here, in The Cheat, no such constraints are placed on the lovemaking behavior of their lead couple. He has his hands on her face, cupping down onto her throat – it is passionate. Sort of a lovely moment of a still-hot marriage. In the slightly jaded world in which these two operate, where all men have a little sumthin-sumthin’ on the side … Jeffrey is a misfit. He still loves his wife, and wants her desperately. Judging from her passionate response to him, she feels the same. It’s nice. A nice element to this FREAK-FEST of a movie. He’s not a dupe, she’s not a slut … she’s wild, he’s conservative – but they love each other. As people, yes – there are scenes where they discuss money and other marital issues – but also as lovers.
Okay, so things start to go south for Elsa pretty quick.
There’s that $10,000 gambling debt she owes. Dude’s coming to collect the next day. But because of a brief conversation she and Jeffrey have, where he says they need to cut back and conserve until his deals come through, she doesn’t feel like she has the power to ask him for that kind of money. She begs for more time from the collector, and he gives it to her. It’s only another 24 hours though. She is going to have to figure out something fast.
Meanwhile, she is on the fundraising committee for some charity, and they are hosting a fair, as well as a big gala event. Livingstone (creep) is hosting the event and it is going to be an all-Japanese theme. Dude needs to get a life.
After the fair, the ladies’ committee counts out the money. There is $10,000 there. Hm. Coincidence? And they give it to Elsa, for safekeeping, until they can deposit it in the bank the following Monday. Hm. Smart move?
Meanwhile, Livingstone has set his sights on Elsa. He shows up at the fair, “randomly”, to give her a lift home. She is breezy and unconcerned. Whatever. She knows how to handle men, right?
Livingstone takes her back to his place instead, and back into that creep-fest Sho Gun room. He wants to show her something. He has his two Japanese houseboys run off to fetch this thing. It is a glorious jewel-encrusted dress from Siam, I believe. Real jewels. And yes, the ridiculous huge crown that I posted earlier. Elsa oohs and ahhs over it, not realizing that he means it for her. He finally gets to the point and says he wants her to wear it at the gala event the following event. She says, Oh no, I couldn’t possibly. He insists, nostrils flaring. The glittering of the jewels is too much for her to resist. Uh-oh, Elsa. A guy like this never ever GIVES anything without expecting something in return. She accepts.
At home Elsa is still worried about her money situation. The wad of cash in the safe haunts her. But she still has a moral code. If she used that money, that isn’t hers, to pay off a gambling debt … that is a path she doesn’t want to go down. There are no lines at this point to suggest this. It is all in Tallulah Bankhead’s peaky concerned little face. What is she to do?
That night she and Jeffrey go out to eat at a little Italian restaurant. A mutual friend comes over to say hello, of course teasing Jeffrey about how much time he wants to spend with his own wife. Jeffrey laughs. He is not ashamed that his favorite companion is his delicious little wife. In the middle of this conversation, the friend gives Jeffrey an insider-trading tip – basically to place your money on such-and-such a stock, because it’s going to skyrocket the following day. It is basically a done deal. You can see Elsa listening to this, wondering … wondering if she dared …
You just know this will end badly.
The next scene shows Elsa, holding the wad of cash gathered from the charity event, sitting in the office with the mutual friend. She wants to place it all on that stock he mentioned, and please don’t mention this to Jeffrey.
Maybe things will work out? Elsa is a gambling addict, obviously. She believes in her own good fortune, all evidence to the contrary. She could double her money, pay off all her debts, and Jeffrey won’t have to know a thing about it.
Somehow I don’t think things will go that way though.
Later that night she and her husband are getting ready to go to the Japanese ball. Poor Jeffrey is wearing a ridiculous costume that makes him look like a community-theatre actor trying to play the King of Siam, and Elsa says to him, “Close your eyes – I want to show you what I’m wearing.” She emerges from her dressing room wearing the jewel-encrusted dress and gown. He is gobsmacked by it and immediately realizes that the jewels on it are real. “Where did you get this, darling?” She says, breezily, “Livingstone leant it to me.” Jeffrey (wise man) does not like this at all. Elsa cajoles him out of sulking. It means nothing, darling, it was just a nice gesture, he wanted it to be worn, that’s all, no need to get concerned.
Elsa, you may be wise in SOME ways of handling men, but you have to realize that men know other men better than WOMEN know men – and so Jeffrey knows what Livingstone is up to better than you do.
But we all have our own journeys and mistakes to make.
The Japanese gala is a spectacular bit of film-making. The costumes, the geisha girls, the Japanese dancers, the decor … hundreds of people. It’s marvelous. Elsa circulates through the crowd in her ridiculous get-up, as Livingstone smirks at her from afar. She runs into a couple of her fund-raising friends, and one of them says something about how glad they are that the money is with Elsa, until it can be deposited. Elsa flashes on her financial troubles. You start to feel the net tightening. Almost as heavily as that damn rocket-launcher crown she’s wearing.
At one point, she’s called to the phone.
She goes into a private room and answers the phone.
We then cut to that mutual friend who gave the stock-tip. He is in his office, and he is a madman. Pacing and panicked. Immediately you think (although you knew it was coming): Uh-oh. Uh-thefuck-oh. He babbles at her, insanely, how the stock has plummeted, millions lost, all her money lost, all his money lost, etc. She stands by the desk and you can feel her entire life collapse around her. Tallulah (ridiculous getup notwithstanding) plays the shit out of this scene. It is a classic example of the old-school style of acting – big on gesture that illuminates emotional truth. Nothing casual about it. It’s not over-acted, it’s not MELOdramatic – after all, the stakes are incredibly high in this story. Her reaction is appropriate. I actually started getting afraid for her.
Livingstone, in his damn kimono, slips into the room unseen while she is having this conversation, and he overhears the whole thing. He sees his chance. She hangs up, and she can barely stand by this point. She grips onto the side of the desk, as though she is about to collapse. He is at her side. “I heard your situation …” he sneers. He then offers to give her a check to cover her debts. She, by this point, is going in and out of a faint, and can’t think straight. She tries to resist. No, no … she suddenly feels the ties around her wrists, her ankles, her soul … If she says Yes to the offer, what will he want in return? Duh. She asks that question. He says (creepy), “I just want you to be a little bit nicer to me.” Hmmm. He says, “And come over to my house to spend the night with me.” Elsa, just like Nora in Doll’s House begins to weigh all of her terrible options. Would a night with Japanese-Douchebag be so bad, if she can clear this debt off her soul without Jeffrey knowing? But what about Jeffrey? You really get, in this scene, the faithfulness and loyalty at the heart of this little wild woman.
Again, with the pre-Code movies’ willingness to be complex.
Elsa is not “bad”. She is wild and impetuous and comfortable with her sexuality. She is ALSO a good and loyal wife.
Two years later, women would need to be split off into compartments. Good ones over here, bad ones over here. No, no, no, women, you cannot be both.
Finally, tragically, Elsa sees no other way out of her bind. She says she will accept Livingstone’s offer. She knows what this will mean. Her soul (finally) realizes the snake she is dealing with, and she recoils from him. But once she says Yes, there is no real way out.
The next day, Elsa paces round in her room, unraveled. That night she must go to Livingstone’s to “pay him back”.
In the middle of this, Jeffrey enters, excited. His big deals have gone through successfully, and they are now rich. He whirls her around. “Let’s travel, let’s take a year off, let’s relax a little bit!” You get (from Bankhead’s performance, which I think is very effective) that she will not go back to her wild gambling ways. She has been chastened, she has learned her lesson. It’s never gotten this bad before, she’s never had a debt that could not be repaid before. In the middle of Jeffrey’s exhilaration she bursts out, sobbing, “Jeffrey, can you give me $10,000?” Jeffrey stops. He asks her why. The truth comes pouring out that she has a gambling debt from the yacht club and she can’t pay it back, she’s so sorry, she’ll never do it again, sorry, sorry, but Jeffrey, please save me …
Then comes a subtly awful moment. I gasped when I heard it, because I could feel the trap even more intensely. Jeffrey says, “I know all about it, darling. The gentleman stopped by my office yesterday to collect. So I paid it off.”
Wonderful, right? (In terms of the script being effective.)
So then … oh no … she still needs $10,000. She needs to pay Livingstone back, so she can get out of THAT situation. But how to tell Jeffrey that?
It’s a nice nice little moment in the script. The light at the end of the tunnel receding, further and further away.
Elsa, good for her, good little woman, throws herself on her husband’s mercy, knowing that she may lose him forever, and bursts out again, “Jeffrey, I still need $10,000! Please don’t ask me why – I just need it!”
Jeffrey eventually does write her a check, but you can see … you can see the doubt growing. Will that poison their relationship?
Now we come to the 20 minutes of the film where the gloves really come off. I couldn’t believe The Cheat had the nerve to actually go there. It didn’t make threats it couldn’t follow through on. It is an absolutely harrowing 20-minute bit of film.
That evening, Elsa goes to Livingstone’s house. Before she gets there we see him, kimono-ed up, thinking he’s about to get lucky, stands alone in his Sho-Gun room. He holds a doll, obviously a hand-crafted doll wearing the costume that Elsa had worn to the Japanese gala. He stands, staring at it, and it is truly awful. You want to intervene and tell Elsa to screw the debt, do not enter that house, run home before you even get there!
Then, ceremoniously, Livingstone opens that smoking cannister at the end of the table, and pulls out a brand, like you would use on a cow. Slowly, he moves the brand closer to the little pedestal the doll is on, and – with a singeing awful sound – he presses the brand into the pedestal. Smoke bursts forth. He pulls the brand back and then stares at his handiwork. Slowly, he walks to the cabinet against the wall and opens it up. The empty second shelf looms, and he, smiling, puts the doll on that shelf, standing alone. Closes the doors.
It is at this moment that the Japanese house-boy lets Elsa into the room.
Livingstone is all sexed up and ready to go. It is played quite blatantly. There is no euphemism about what he expects.
She comes in, and, quivering with fear yet also determined, hands him the check as payment. This pushes him over the edge. “That wasn’t a loan. That was a GIFT,” he seethes, starting to get, well, dangerous. She stands strong. “No. I must pay you back. There it is. All of it. Our deal is off.”
But Livingstone decides to take what he wants anyway. A struggle ensues. This is no carefully-choreographed domestic struggle. She slaps him across the face at one point, and it’s wild, it looks unrehearsed.
At this point, I had no idea which way events would go. I was on the edge of my seat, I’m not kidding. I was actually scared.
The fight gets so out of control that Livingstone realizes she means business, that he cannot “have” her, and so he stops, and says, with terrifying stillness, something along the lines of, “Fine. You won’t spend the night with me? I will put my mark on you so you will always know I own you.”
My mind sort of split off when he said that … no … no … he’s not going to … is he?
But yes. He goes to the smoking cannister, and takes out the red-hot brand. She sees what’s coming at her, and tries to run (she’s fantastic – no melodrama here, just action and re-action) – but he blocks her way.
And does Livingstone brand her?
Damn straight he does.
He presses the brand into the skin of her breast, right over her heart.
Now how they show the branding is horrifying, because they don’t actually show it. It’s not AS fucking awful as the hot-pot-of-coffee-thrown-in-face from The Big Heat (I cringe just thinking about it) – but it’s pretty damn close … because until the last second you don’t believe that Livingstone will go through with it. But he does. He holds the brand down onto her skin and Tallulah Bankhead – an actress with major freakin’ GUTS – doesn’t just scream, but howls. Her head thrown back, making a sound like a wounded animal. It’s not an “actress” scream. It is a wrenching squealing scream.
This is not filmed headon, but the way they film it makes it even worse.
I won’t give any more of the moment away, but all I can say is Holy shit.
Now THAT’S a movie that has the courage of its convictions.
There’s still about half an hour to go in The Cheat, but I’ll leave off here.
Suffice it to say, the way it works out is complex, and left me uneasy. It is not clear what it “means”. There is no clear moral. You have to think about it, talk about it.
At the center of it is a kick-ass performance by Tallulah Bankhead.
I am still freaked out by The Cheat.
Some screengrabs below.