Sunday, February 10, 2013

Story of a Cheat, The (1938)

Director: Sacha Guitry

With a unique form of motion picture storytelling, the French film The Story of a Cheat presents one man’s a narrative told from just that one man’s mouth. A single person perspective is how many books and novels have been told for as ages, as well how men have communicated their stories one-on-one, but to see a picture where a singular man does all the talking seems unique. Once again a gem of a film comes from across an ocean, leaving the glamorous, squeaky clean Hollywood behind to see how European cinema is enjoyed, presenting more real life situations splashed on the movie screen.

The Story of a Cheat is a French film of one man recounting his entire life though the writing of his memoirs, account the periods growing up and becoming that man that he is, while passerbys  as he writes listen on. While sitting in a small café a man in his mid-50s (Sacha Guitry) writes his memoirs, confessing all the deeds that made him into a cheat. Narrated and voiced purely by the man telling the story, he recounts his upbringing, including the loss of his family to accidental poisoning. Due to his first punishment for stealing by his father the man would be spared of the poisoned meal that slayed his entire family, introducing us to how stealing actually aided his life.

Continuing his story to the many that pass him by in the café he tells how while serving in the army the man is spared by a fellow soldier that loses his arm in the process. Once back in the home from war the man becomes a cheat, first as a jewel thief with one woman, then as a failed casino fixer while with another woman he married. After living as a professional card cheat, he becomes a straight gambler with the inspiration of meeting once again the man that saved his life, and in the process losing all that he has. After finishing his story The Cheat is confronted by a countess he once had a fling with, she recruiting him to rob a house across the street, but The Cheat leaves the last laugh as he explains he is now a security guard.

It is an amusing tale presented in a wonderfully refreshing way as director/star Sacha Guitry tells the whole story from his own voice. Narrating his life and voicing all the characters in the story in one large flashback presents an interesting look into this character’s life. Only characters in the modern time, where he is writing the story have their own voices. We see his memories, but also get the man’s insight while we watch them play out. It is very similar to reading a person’s memoir, but this film’s fictional account makes them amusingly and entertainingly in his own stylized account of his actions.

Sacha Guitry was a famous writer, as well as a popular actor/filmmaker. A son of a well-known actor Guitry had a skill of story in his DNA, and here in The Story of a Cheat he uses his novel writing skills and translates them into a the medium of motion pictures more directly than just creating another simple narrative adaptation. The first person perspective of the character is not how motion pictures are usually shared, but does provide a new outlook on how stories can be told in the art of cinema in the main stream. The picture even begins by setting the film’s tone by foregoing the printed credits, instead showing the cast and crew as they are verbally introduced by Guitry, in his own amusing way.

Guitry usually stared and directed the films he was a part in, dominating the creativity of the pictures. His fellow actors, Maguerite Moreno as the Countess, Roger Duchesne as Abramich, the soldier that saves his life, Rosine Deréan as the jewel thief, and Jacqueline Delubac as The Cheat’s wife, all take second fiddle to the actor/director, who dominates everything in the film.

The picture played rather well in Europe and across the ocean in America as well. American audiences would be opened to the more sexually expressive storyline that could be presented in foreign films not limited by the production code which controlled pictures of Hollywood. The film would however contain all the necessary plot points that would appease the Hollywood system of ethics having The Cheat not succeed in life as a cheat, ultimately becoming a security guard, which is thrown in at the very end of the movie.

Contemporary audiences and critics praise the feature for its creativity and fun with the filmmaking. It finds its name on many “must see” and “top” lists throughout the years. It’s a fictional film that allows audiences to take part in the evils in life without physically living them out, making it a fun feature to spend time watching. With all the women and dirty deeds the picture is full of the corruptness of the world, but by sitting in a comfortable chair one can enjoy it all without the consequence of actually living it.

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