Cheaters (1930) **** Bfi London Film Festival 2020

October 10th, 2020
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Paulette McDonagh; Cast: Marie Lorraine (Isabel NcDonagh), Arthur Greenaway, John Faulkner, Joseph Bambach; Australia 1930, 94 min. 

Australia’s Paulette McDonagh (1901-1978) was a pioneer of the silent film era. Working with her sisters Phyllis (art direction) and Isabel, who stars here as Marie Lorraine, Paulette was a victim of the emerging sound film. The Cheaters was shot as a silent movie, McDonagh writing and editing. Later it was partly re-shot with sound-on-disc and the result was disappointing. Paulette would only direct one more feature film, Two minute silence in 1933.

After embezzling a small sum to help his sick wife, clerk Michael Marsh (Greenaway) begs his superior John Travers (Faulkner) not to involve the police. But his pleas fall on deaf ears. Travers is a self-righteous cold fish and Travers ends up in jail, with his wife dying.

Travers goes on to forge a criminal empire. Paula Marsh (Lorraine), supposedly his daughter, heads up many of the heists, her alluring beauty coming in useful for duping the victims. But somehow her heart is not in it, and we soon discover she is not even Marsh’s real daughter. After falling in love with Lee Travers, son of Michael, she is on the verge of leaving her ‘father’, before he tells her the truth. Nothing stands in the way of a happy-end for the lovers, and Marsh, hunted down by the police in his castle, commits suicide by taking poison.

Surprisingly, there are many parallels here with Fritz Lang’s Mabuse series. although the setting is far less sinister setting.  Marsh’ castle and his army of helpers are very comparable with  Lang’s silent feature, revenge being a strong motive in both cases. Marsh is just as deranged as his German counterpart Mabuse, only his  love for Paula brings out the humanity in him.

McDonagh’s art direction is marvellous, the castle rooms are particularly full of brooding horror, DoP Jack Fletcher makes the most of this with his fine camerawork. Paulette McDonagh was a very talented director, but soon the Australian market fell victim to the Hollywood talkies. This restauration gives us a taste of what could have been a stellar career for Paulette McDonagh. AS


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