April 23, 2018

The Story of a Cheat (1936)
Grade: 69/100

Director: Sacha Guitry
Stars: Sacha Guitry, Jacqueline Delubac, Rosine Deréan

What it's about. Our jaded narrator, aged 54, writes his memoirs at an outdoor café. At age 12, he becomes the sole survivor of a large family when the rest die from eating poisoned mushrooms. He had not been allowed to eat the mushrooms, a punishment for stealing a pittance from a cash register at the family store. Thus, the boy learned that crime did pay, at least sometimes.

The boy (Serge Grave) is obligated to live with his humorless cousin (Pierre Labry) and his equally dour wife (Pauline Carton). But soon the boy gets a job and moves out, as a bellboy (Pierre Assy) at a posh hotel. He has a brief fling with Marguerite Moreno, and plots to assassinate the Russian Czar with Roger Duchesne.

After further adventures, our protagonist, now grown (Sacha Guitry), has an affair with jewel thief Rosine Deréan. They become partners in crime, but he abandons her for a job as a roulette wheel croupier in a Monaco casino. There, he meets beautiful Jacqueline Delubac, a frequent star in Sacha Guitry films during the mid-1930s. (I would cast her too).

Delubac believes that Guitry can control which numbers will win, and indeed this transpires, at least for a while. Guitry weds Delubac so that he can share in her gambling gains, but his skill proves fleeting, and the marriage is dissolved.

Guitry becomes a professional card cheat and a master of disguises. He amasses an ill-gotten fortune, but is shamed by an encounter with Henri Peiffert, the man who lost an arm saving Guitry's life during the Great War. Guitry loses everything again, and henceforth ekes out a modest income as a security guard.

How others will see it. The Story of a Cheat is the most popular of Sacha Guitry's films, with about twice the imdb.com user votes as La Poison (1951). Guitry's endless voiceovers and winsome humor are either charming or tiresome, depending on the viewer, but there are more in the former camp than the latter, especially for the present film. The user ratings are high, and consistent across all demographics, though the audience is limited, since it is a black and white French language film.

How I felt about it. The Story of a Cheat is essentially a silent film with narration. Sacha Guitry is the director, the sole writer, and the star. It is a comedy with a message: life is full of ups and downs, and you should take things as they come. Guitry plays a scoundrel, but one who doubts his course, unlike Rosine Deréan, who knows she is a thief and is just fine with that.

Guitry learns the grifting skills of a conspirator, a jewel thief, and a card shark, but he turns his back on all of these things to stop crime as a security guard. But we don't see him working as a security guard. Not only does crime pay better, it is more cinematic. Nonetheless, Guitry appears happiest when he is left alone for months to read Balzac, even if his novels cause him to gain weight and age considerably.