Criterion Cuts: “The Story of a Cheat”

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.

I watch a lot of movies from every era of film, sometimes for writing projects but often just because I like movies. That said, the more and more movies I watch, the harder it is to be really surprised by something. It’s not a bad thing once you adjust to it, but it does mean that when something does surprise you you really sit up and take notice. Today’s movie is just such a movie. It’s always fantastic to have something obscure to pull up and hold out to people as a movie absolutely worthy of people’s time and attention, and I’m glad to be able to do so without hesitation this week.

The Story of a Cheat (1936)

A middle aged man (Sacha Guitry) sits down at a Parisian cafe, book in hand, and sets about to writing. That writing—in a large, florid hand—details the man’s memoirs, and the bulk of the film’s narrative, starting at the innocent age of twelve, when the unnamed man (let’s just call him the Cheat) was a young boy caught stealing from the till of his family’s store in order to buy some small trifle. The family, poor and quick to punish, send the boy to bed without supper. In a stroke of luck that would come to be the Cheat’s only inheritance, the soup for dinner that night turned out to be made with poisonous mushrooms a family member had picked, and his entire family is struck down in a single night. The boy, in being accused of a crime he did not commit, was rewarded for his transgressions. His morality was never quite the same again.

His massive inheritance passes to him, but due to his age he’s put under the care of distant relatives who cheat him out of his entire trust fund. The Cheat, knowing that there’s no future for him here, runs away to get an array of jobs in the big bustling cities of the late 19th century. He grows from doorman to bellhop, meeting everyone and hobnobbing his way into the hearts and minds of the wealthy and powerful. He even has an implied tryst with a much older woman in his teenage years, a Countess who offers a gift of her esteem: a gold watch, which he brings out to show people at the next table over in the present day, kept for decades and part of the elaborate tale he tells, Forest Gump style, to both us and the people who pass by his perch.

During this period of youth, he even falls into historical events. A dishwasher he befriends turns out to be a foreigner with aspirations to assassinate Czar Nicholas II when he visits Paris, wrapping the Cheat up into his plans. The Cheat, strong-armed into going along with this crime, ends up writing an anonymous letter to the police in order to extricate himself, foiling their plans involving the hotel the Cheat worked at and leading to the arrest of the people who were threatening the Cheat’s way of life. The adventure is even intercut with news footage from that era, a mixture of fact and fiction that the rest of the movie dances around.

The saddest of sudden orphans.

The Cheat, deciding he’s spooked into going straight, and takes the only completely honest job he can think of: croupier in a casino. He goes to Monaco to live the high life, only to be drafted into the French army in World War II, getting himself wounded and laid up for most of the war, returning back to Monaco a much older, more weary man. Deciding that honesty didn’t get him very far, and left him bereft of much of his youth, he hooks up with a woman at the casino, relying upon his luck to win them money by throwing charmed roulette spins. The two decide to keep the scam going, and get married in order to hold each other to their 50/50 split, only to have their partnership’s luck spoiled by making it official and ruining them both with a series of statistically impossible bad spins. Those spins are so unlikely that the casino accuses him of cheating when he was utterly unable to, and fire him.

The Cheat spends his time gaining a fortune playing cards, and of course cheating baldly at them, until he discovers the one person he can’t cheat: the man who rescued him during the war, losing an arm in the process. The two men strike up a friendship, and the maimed man reveals to the Cheat his true passion: gambling, which he enjoys in a way the Cheat never did. His goodhearted passion makes the Cheat realize the joy in not knowing the outcome, and the Cheat decides to give up cheating for good. Promptly, he loses the entire fortune he gained, happily gambling away years of work in months.

Guitry explains to the camera how one might secret a card up one’s sleeve.

And the cheat, now old and destitute, brings his story to the present day. As he finishes his tale, he realizes that the woman he’s sitting across from is the Countess from his youth, now elderly and unaware of who he is. He tries to hide his watch from her, but she finally recognizes him anyway and then lets him in on a secret: she’s spending her years robbing the houses of the rich while they’re away on vacation, and wants the Cheat’s help. The Cheat declines, admitting two things: the luxurious house she’s targeting was once his own, and he still uses it as inspiration to regain his fortune; and that he’s finally found the only job where he can be honest and still do the things he’s good at—a security guard.

What’s amazing about this film isn’t it’s construction (from what I could gather it’s actually one of the first films to have a memoir framing device like this), but Guitry’s heartwarming and slyly funny way of telling it. It’s a deft tale, bouncing around a life spent always trying to grab the next opportunity, always on the wrong side of the seesaw of whichever morality was getting paid that day. Sacha Guitry was once a French superstar, in hundreds of plays and writer of dozens of books. He was slow to adopt film, though, and thus only made a handful of notable movies. His stock in trade fell rather sharply in post-WWII France, however, since he (much like his character) had decided to bank on whichever side was winning and was sympathetic towards the Vichy government, leading to him being nearly forgotten by film studies for decades.

There’s an early Bond level of gambling in this movie, which also serves one of the forgotten purposes of film: to show an audience the environments and lives of the wealthy, a peek into a world they’d likely never see.

But wartime loyalties aside, what he’s left is a number of really great, touching films, of which The Story of a Cheat is the best I have seen so far. It’s all of the human foibles of the best of Chaplin’s culture-spanning silent greats, with the sort of easy criminal nature that makes thieves like Danny Ocean our coolest cinematic heroes. They’re not the good guys, but they’re not bad, and you can’t help but love their enthusiasm for breaking all the rules. And when life throws as many roadblocks in their way as Guitry does in The Story of a Cheat, it’s hard not to see him as the underdog. Sure, he steals, but nobody ever seems to torn up about it.

It’s the kind of nebulous morality that only works in fiction, but Guitry makes it sing. There’s a casual ease to his films, including this one, that makes them feel like a great time with a good friend. Maybe it’s his way of scripting and shooting, which is decidedly deliberate and theatrical, allowing everything to unfold at its own pace without the strict demands of modern cinema. Maybe it’s Guitry himself, who always opens his films by addressing the audience as himself and introducing not only the actors, but the composer and editor and all, too, in an elaborate credits sequence more films would do well to emulate.

It’s the casual joy of someone who just wants to spin a yarn more than create a complicated piece of art, which is the best summation I could give for The Story of a Cheat—nobody is going to be challenged by it, but it’s still incredibly fun and watchable, the kind of stuff that makes cinema worthwhile. Of the many movies I cover in this article, this is among the most easily accessible, and I would recommend it without hesitation to absolutely everyone.

An older Cheat and his beloved Countess, reuniting by fate.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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