Plot: Elsa (Tallulah Bankhead) is a beautiful, charismatic woman, but also an impulsive one and while her reckless actions rarely come back to haunt her, her long suffering husband Jeffrey (Harvey Stephens) bears the brunt of the consequences. To say he is deeply in love with her would be an understatement, as he is hopelessly devoted to his wife, though she doesn’t seem to return that same level of adoration. He tries to keep up with her, always hopeful that he will find financial success soon, despite their nearly constant financial woes. But when she steals ten thousand dollars and quickly loses it on a stock gamble, she knows she is in real trouble. A chance to replace the debt arrives in the form of a seductive playboy, who seems interested in Elsa as a conquest and is willing to pay for the right to ravage her. But will Elsa go through with this indecent proposal and if so, what will become of her in the wake of her indiscretion?
Entertainment Value: This is a dark slice of pre-code cinema, with a terrific lead effort from Tallulah Bankhead and a twisted, psycho sexual narrative. The Cheat runs under 80 minutes, but never feels rushed and fits in an engaging story with ample development, so there’s minimal downtime here. Some pre-code movies have content that seems tame by modern standards, but The Cheat would still be dark as hell if it was made in 2018, so don’t assume this is a dusty, antiquated relic. While the pace is good, some less patient viewers might tap their feet between melodramatic outbursts, but I think the movie moves at a nice clip. The pace quickens as soon as Elsa encounters Hardy, the man who wants to conquer her, with the dynamics of that relationship driving the rest of the film’s narrative. Hardy is a wild, sadistic character even by pre-code standards, while Elsa isn’t a saint of course, but seems like an angel by comparison. The finale is a crazed burst of pure madness, so The Cheat doesn’t disappoint in terms of what most viewers want from pre-code cinema.
The cast here is a small, but talented one and Tallulah Bankhead has the lead, in a capable, charismatic turn. She is able to make us like Elsa despite her behaviors and she also makes it easy to see why Elsa’s husband is so enamored, as she has immense charm and presence. The performance is melodramatic, but that suits the material and the scandalous tone involved. A dialed back effort might have worked, but not as well, given the salacious elements dealt with. She tunes up the melodrama, but I don’t think she goes over the top, so there’s a difference there. The movie greatly benefits from the presence of Irving Pichel, who holds nothing back as the cruel, sadistic Hardy. The scene where he turns down a check and demands Elsa honor her agreement is a potent one, though he does take a little over the top at times. But given that he is a brash villain, the over the top moments are warranted, I feel. Harvey Stephens is also solid as Elsa’s poor husband, while Ann Andrews and Jay Fassett also appear. I think The Cheat is a well crafted, memorable pre-code melodrama, well worth a look.