If there’s one thing Elsa Carlyle (Tallulah Bankhead) can’t resist, it’s gambling. One night, she finds herself $5,000 in the hole and doesn’t have the money to pay it so she makes one last bet for the night. She and the casino owner each draw a card and if she draws the highest one, she doesn’t have to pay. But if the owner gets the high card, she has to pay $10,000. Naturally, she ends up owing $10,000.
After she steps outside to get some air, she’s joined by Hardy Livingstone (Irving Pichel), who invites her to go see his house. She goes with him, but it immediately becomes clear that he has a sinister side. He shows her a cabinet full of dolls he’s had made to look like former girlfriends and branded with his personal crest so he feels like he owns them. He also pressures her to let him give her a very valuable gown once owned by a princess to wear to a charity ball. Elsa is smart enough to know that something isn’t right there and leaves.
Elsa is married to Jeffrey (Harvey Stephens), a stockbroker who, at the moment, is just barely breaking even so she can’t bring herself to ask him for the money. But when she overhears one of Jeffrey’s friends tell him about a very good stock tip, she takes the money she was entrusted with for the charity ball and puts all of it on that tip. Confident that her money woes are behind her, she’s in such a good mood that she decides to take Livingstone up on his offer of that dress.
On the night of the ball, Elsa is having a wonderful time and Livingstone’s gown is a sensation, even though Jeffrey very highly disapproves of her having anything to do with Livingstone. But then Elsa gets the fateful phone call from her stockbroker saying that she’s lost all her money. Livingstone overhears the conversation and offers her the money, but on the condition that she come visit him and that she be nice to him. Not having any other options, she accepts.
But just before she’s going to see him for the first time, a deal Jeffery had been working on finally comes through and they are suddenly very wealthy. Elsa brings a check to Livingstone for the money he gave her, hoping he’d forget the whole thing. But he isn’t willing to let her go that easily and brands her like one of his dolls. Elsa grabs a nearby gun, shoots him, and runs. What she doesn’t realize is that Jeffrey had followed her to Livingstone’s and he decides to take the fall for her.
I quite liked The Cheat. The story is engaging and nicely paced and Tallulah Bankhead gives a very good performance. As far as pre-codes go, this one is a bit tame compared to some of the others out there, but it’s still pretty likeable. This is a remake of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat from 1915, which I haven’t seen, but I’d really like to because I can definitely see where DeMille’s style would have lent itself well to the story.