Before even Orson Welles, who is generally considered the template for the phrase “wunderkind filmmaker”, there was Sacha Guitry, who became known through his performances on the stage and his playwriting, disdaining the era of silent cinema due to its lack of dialogue. It was when sound came to films that he finally embraced the medium, and embarked on his first film, The Story of a Cheat. Much like other notable wunderkinds of the cinema, Guitry wrote, directed, and stars in his debut feature, and as if that weren’t enough, he not only provides his own dialogue, but the dialogue of everyone else as well, through the narrating of his flashbacks. Truly, this was a man that was not satisfied unless he was able to do everything on a film. Normally, such a person would be mildly insufferable, but when Guitry produces a film as purely entertaining as this as a result, I’ll happily grant him the license to do what he pleases.
Guitry is the titular “cheat”, who is in his fifties and writing his memoirs in a cafe, which provides the narrative structure for the flashbacks, as well as Guitry’s narrating of them. The film is merely the telling of his life, how he learned at an early age to act dishonestly in order to be rewarded, and how he made this his life’s career, to the ultimate detriment of himself. The first thing I noticed, right off the bat, with Guitry, is that he is as playful as he is intelligent, and as dynamic as he is artistic. This leapt out at me, as Guitry inventively spelled out the title of the film with lettered playing cards, and recited most of the opening credits several decades before Godard would think to do so in one of his films. As the film went on, I could definitely tell Guitry’s history as a playwright, as basically the whole film could’ve played equally as well as a stage play, with Guitry in the present time at the cafe on the side of the stage, while he narrates his life story as it takes place in flashback on the stage itself. That it was a film instead of a stage play seemed to be only a matter of circumstance. Even with his playwriting history, though, Guitry seems to have an innate knowledge of how to put a film together, choosing particular shots and camera placements to link scenes together, all accompanied by a musical score that’s as exacting and playful as Guitry himself. By the end of the film, I had taken notice that the technicals weren’t really the best, even for 1936, but I also noticed that I didn’t really care; I was enjoying the film too much to let the technical foibles get me down.
Sure, my opinion may not be as universally shared as I’d be wont to believe; some will likely find a film where one man merely tells us his life story as it happens to be as self-indulgent as it is tedious. All I can say is, I am apparently not one of those people; Guitry was too entertaining a filmmaker for me to even get so much as bored during his picture, which is something too few filmmakers of the era can say. That, plus the running time of one-and-a-quarter hours, and the film did nothing to overstay its welcome, which was yet another item in the Pros column. This is that all-too-rare example of how one man, given free reign over the making of a film, can manage to get everything right on the money, as opposed to sinking the film with his own torpedo a la Michael Cimino. I think that’s worthy of applause, and I’m glad Guitry’s film made the list, so others can applaud him as well.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10