LFF Review: The Cheaters (Paulette McDonagh, 1929)

This is a guest post for Silent London by writer/director Alex Barrett. You can watch The Cheaters as part of the London Film Festival until 1pm on Wednesday 14 October.

Following on from the excellent livestreams they’ve been presenting on their YouTube channel throughout the lockdown period, the fine folks at the Kennington Bioscope have partnered with the London Film Festival to showcase The Cheaters (1930) in the aptly named Treasures strand. A rare silent film from Australia, it is the only surviving feature made by the McDonagh sisters – writer/director Paulette, actress Isabel (aka Marie Lorraine) and art director Phyllis.

The story begins with embittered embezzler Bill Marsh (Arthur Greenaway) pleading with wealthy businessman John Travers (John Faulkner) to show him some leniency for his crimes – he has been stealing money to help his dying wife. When Travers refuses, Marsh is carted off for incarceration, swearing that he’ll have his vengeance, whatever it takes!

Cut to twenty years later, and Marsh is now the head of a criminal empire – inspired, we’re told, partly by his pursuit of revenge. With the help of his accomplices, including his daughter (Lorraine), Marsh orchestrates a cunning heist, stashing his goods in the vault he has hidden behind a giant painting, very befitting of an arch-criminal. His daughter, however, has grown weary of her life of crime and, when she meets Travers’ son (Joseph Bambach, known as the Australian Valentino), romance begins to blossom…

In all, there’s no denying the pulpy melodrama of the narrative, but the McDonagh sisters elevate the material by infusing it with a meditation on the corrupting nature of revenge, questions regarding fate versus freewill and (at the risk of spoiling a major plot twist) ruminations on the theme of nature versus nurture.

The lengthy, literary intertitles won’t be to everyone’s taste, but there’s a visual dynamism to the photographed scenes (shot by cameraman Jack Fletcher) which prevents the film from ever feeling weighed down by its heavy text. It’s said that Paulette, who came from a theatrical background, studied certain films over and over to learn her craft, and one wonders if she was raised on a diet of French crime serials and Fritz Lang epics – the latter, especially, seems to be a touchstone, and an early scene of Marsh in prison, covered by the shadow of the bars and the warden, hint – perhaps – at a Germanic influence.

Paulette McDonagh directing The Cheaters

The Cheaters, however, remains a down-to-earth take on the crime genre – despite its opening scenes featuring the three Fates spinning the threads of destiny, mythology and fantasy are kept to a minimum, even as the McDonagh sisters weave a tragic grandeur from their material. Indeed, the opening images of the three female Fates “spinning the threads of destiny” (as the intertitle puts it) must surely stand to represent the three sisters, creating and controlling every aspect of the film with extreme foresight and precision. That this is their only surviving feature feels like something of a tragedy within itself.

Made at the tail end of the silent era, the film was originally released in one of those ghastly repurposed, part-talkieversions, to much indifference. The silent version, apparently, was never shown publicly. Hopefully this stunning new restoration, from the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, will help put things right.

By Alex Barrett

• Book now to watch The Cheaters.

• Read about the making of The Cheaters in this fascinating feature from Bryony Dixon.

• Read more about the McDonagh sisters here on the Women Film Pioneers Project.

Find out more about the marvellous Kennington Bioscope here.

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