Director: Charles Vidor
Starring: Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford, George Macready
The movie that turned Rita Hayworth from a starlet into a star, Gilda drips with venom-laced sex appeal at every corner. It’s a noir – of sorts – and also provided Glenn Ford with one of his most iconic roles. Self-loathing and sexualized hate underpin most of the motives in the film, and it’s so rampant, so out-of-control, that if this film had a temperature, it would be too hot to handle.
Johnny Farrell (Ford) is plucked from his street rat existence by the smart, sophisticated and wickedly cunning casino magnate Ballin Mundson (scene-stealing Macready). When Farrell meets Mundson’s new wife, Gilda (Hayworth), memories of what had to be a passionate but toxic love affair with the woman in question resurface. Mundson, no fool, sees these sparks of hate-filled passion fly, and thus begins one of the most venomous love triangles in all of film.
The first time we see Glenn Ford, the “hero,” for lack of a better word, he is down on his hands and knees, anxiously picking up some die from a gambling ring. Slovenly, underdressed, he is a ramshackle of a man. He nervously grins and glances at the shoes that surround him as he collects his dirty winnings as hurriedly as he can. Farrell will come a long way from here in the story, but his cheating, soiled, grubby beginnings will follow him forever. You can clean the man up but you cannot turn him into a gentleman. He is perpetually reminded of his lowbrow upbringing; his boss looks down his nose at him; the bathroom attendant constantly calls him a “peasant.” He is promoted quickly to a manager of Ballin’s casino, yet he has no real handle on his employees, no sense of control, no real power. He is not let into the innermost workings of the place, he is left to wonder about its secrets. Perhaps, due to his lack of power in his own life, his pretensions at grandeur, he lashes out by trying to control Gilda. She is the only thing in his life – yes, thing – that he can have some sort of power over. This isn’t to say that Gilda won’t fight this control wildly, but he’ll exert it nonetheless, acting on the frustrations of his class consciousness, with one of the cruelest fists ever attached to a “hero.”
Once again, Rita Hayworth is inescapably luminous. I have a burning love for her, similar in nature, I am sure, to many men of the forties and fifties. She is so open and yet so unknowable in this film; artless and simple, and yet capable of cruelty and hate. Gilda is the quintessential woman who is battered by fate, thrown back and forth and beaten cruelly by the wills of the two men who, well, at least claim to love her. What sets Gilda apart, what makes her more than a waif adrift in the wake of fortune, is the fact that this waif has a backbone. And claws. And, most amazingly for the forties, an acute awareness of her sexuality. Gilda likes her husband, and Gilda loves Johnny, yet the world is angry at her and decides to punish her. She lashes out by viciously flirting with whatever stupid man happens upon her track. She knows, all too well, that Johnny is still in love with her, and to get back at him for what is most likely a history of mistreatment, she decides to torture him. Torture, slow and acute, not by physical pain, but by sexual prowess. Pitch perfect when she is punishing him, this Gilda is counterpointed by the Gilda who never actually went through with her flirtations, the innocent, open Gilda, the one who finally admits she still loves Johnny, the one who plaintively sings “Put the Blame on Mame.” Undoubtedly, this is what made Rita Hayworth an icon, and this, her most iconic role, for in one movie, she manages to be both the angel and the whore, and don’t men really want both?
The misogyny in the film is wildly rampant. I would even call it the central theme. Both Johnny and Ballin clearly hate women. Johnny is wildly, passionately in love with Gilda. So what does he do about it? He calls her vicious names, he ruins her reputation, he marries her then locks her up in his room. Ballin loves Gilda – well, he certainly likes her enough to marry her on a whim – and what does he do about it? He uses her as a pawn, pushing her together with Johnny then taunting the two of them for it. He views her far more as his possession, as if he went into town one day for some eggs and bought a wife as an impulse purchase at the register. For all of this mistreatment, this film still appeals to me (despite my just beneath the surface rampant feminism) because Gilda is not stupid enough to take it. She’s a smart girl, and when treated badly, she’ll treat them badly right back. She’s surrounded by misogynists, yet even though she’s mired down by their hateful webs, she’s struggling to get out, fighting tooth and nail to free herself. I just wish that she had been smart enough in the first place to avoid getting involved with such horrible men.
The setting fits in nicely with Hollywood’s South American obsession of the thirties and forties. In terms of “exotic locales,” one really couldn’t beat South America at that time. Not actually shot there, of course; why bother when a backstage will do? Notorious, Now, Voyager, seemingly half a dozen Fred and Ginger movies, and that’s just to name a few of the films that viewed South America as some mysterious, fascinating vacation land the characters could jet off to, escaping their mundane lives. Gilda is yet another film looking for some sort escape. In this film, the escape is from law and justice; the dirty casino needs to operate outside the boundaries of legal limits and to allow some plot-thickening former German scientists (re: Nazis) to distract from the central triangle. The lawlessness that abides and the lack of a judicial system are the intrigues of South America here. The artificiality of the sets, however, so clearly not in South America, adds to the hyperrealism of the story, somehow reminding the viewer that this story isn’t real – how could it be? The people are far too vicious.
Considered a noir by some, Gilda is one of those films on the edge of genre classification. It is noir in some aspects, but not all. In terms of characterization, I have no doubt that this film fits nicely within the genre. People with horrid motives – money, lust, greed, possession – these are the people who populate the world of Gilda. In my opinion, you cannot call a film a noir without these things. Also helping the argument is the camera work. Not nearly as replete with canted angles as, say, The Third Man, Gilda does dabble now and then in the play of shadows and smoke. In one gorgeous scene, Hayworth, clearly feeling vulnerable and small, has her head practically obscured by her pillows and hair on her bed, and she is completely in shadows. When she speaks, we cannot see her lips moving, so it is as if the words are being superimposed on the shot.
The sets, however, are too glossy, too glamorous. We see little to none of the seedy underbelly world of crime that is important to the look of the noir style. Gilda looks like noir-lite, almost, as if Hollywood didn’t want to get its hands TOO dirty when making the film. Furthermore, there is the question of the ending. Noir films are about fatal flaws, key term being “fatal.” Can a film noir have a happy ending? Does the ending undo the noir characterizations the film spent so much time establishing? In my opinion, it doesn’t. The ending feels a bit too artificial, just like the nightclub sets, and I choose to interpret it as not the ending to Johnny and Gilda’s story, but more a continuation. These two people, who spent so much time torturing one another, can they really end up happy with one another? Doubtful, and it is this doubt that leads me to believe, personally, that this is a noir.
All the unnecessary frills that surround the central triangle are mere distractions, as that triangle is the true strength of Gilda. Three people who simultaneously love and hate one another. Hayworth, still underrated to this day in regards to her acting ability, is absolutely marvelous and manages to carry a film about such horrid relationships, turning it into a truly iconic piece.
Arbitrary Rating: 10/10. I don’t think it’s a perfect movie, but I really really really effing love this movie. One of my all-time favorites.