Beneath the film’s reputation as the ultimate showcase of Rita Hayworth’s sex appeal is one of the best film noirs ever made, boasting a sharp script whose plot isn’t hard to follow, and superb performances by a trio of leading actors and fine supporting cast.
Gilda is many things – a noir, a postwar suspense-drama, a musical of sorts – but perhaps due to the innate power of Hayworth’s onscreen magnetism, it’s often remembered as something else, which has caused this lost gem to be not only marginalized as a different kind of film, but be abandoned by its studio as just another catalogue title - which frankly makes no sense. Where Warner Bros. has continued to celebrate Casablanca [M] (1941) as its most classic WWII drama, Columbia done nothing to craft a special edition for its rough equivalent, let alone load up a video release with important archival & critical extras.
Marion Parsonnet’s script (adapted by Jo Eisinger, and based on a story by E.A. Ellington) is a blatant riff on Casablanca, but repositioned to Argentina and towards the end of WWII. The country is a refuge for fleeing industrialists and crooks, and Ballin Mundson’s illegal gambling joint is where the action happens – but only after specific characters are moved into position.
The first move brings gambler Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) into the lair of Mundson (George Macready): the latter saves the former from a robbery, and the two quickly establish a manager / owner relationship for the efficiently run club. The second move has Mundson returning from a business trip with a new acquisition – Gilda (Hayworth) – a self-confessed whore and nightclub dancer who either took a fast shining to Mundson because of his money, or after an extended conversation, realized she could get back at her old flame Johnny by marrying his new boss.
The messy circumstances aren’t dissimilar to Rick still loving old flame Isla, now married to goody-too-shoes Victor in Casablanca, except being a film that moves from WWII to postwar South America within the first third of its narrative, in Gilda, the key characters are marinating in hate. Gilda hates Johnny and would prefer to die in a state of sublime loathing, whereas Johnny detests Gilda, and when opportunity knocks – Mundson’s sudden death – he makes sure Gilda suffers like a cat in heat locked in a gilded cage.
The emotional sadism is never subjugated in the script and performances, and every move within the plot just makes the characters more desperate, even when they’re nestled in tight little niches. Equally important are the secondary characters who hang around and make little salient, acerbic jabs regardless of whether their opinions are wanted by either trio member, and by the finale the smaller characters have affected their lives in fairly important ways.
Gilda’s reputation as a musical stems from two astounding song & dance numbers that don’t happen until the final half hour, and it’s a remarkable cheat that developed over the years as the film’s reputation morphed from a noir to a genre it simply isn’t. Right from the main titles, we’re treated to the luscious song “Amado Mio” which score composers Hugo Friedhofer and Marlin Skiles work back & forth throughout the film until Hayworth performs a great little early morning version on guitar for spitting lavatory attendant Uncle Pio (scene-stealer Steven Geray). When she finally performs the song, it’s not just a musical number, but a personal statement by Gilda to all the men about her tormented state.
Gilda’s second number – the ‘clothed striptease’ “Put the Blame on Mame” – just happens without any portent because the character performs the song as a fuck-you to Johnny: fed up playing gilded bird to her new husband, she steps onto the casino’s stage and performs a mock striptease, closing with an invitation to have any man unzip her gown for the entire patron cartel.
Both numbers may showcase Hayworth’s gift as a dancer and her undeniable screen power, but they’re Gilda’s painful statements to being messed up and in need of salvation after being repeatedly tricked by her suitors into a state of trust which each and every time turns into a terrible mistake. Johnny may be her ideal mate, but there’s no guarantee the two will return to their state of sublime hate in another adventure.
There’s so much psychology worming its way through the story, yet its sophistication in execution is often ignored. Charles Vidor – a director of much lighter studio entertainment – borrows a bit from Joseph von Sternberg and makes sure objects within every scene move towards the camera to create a 3D look. Right from the opening shot where the camera cranes up from the floor as Johnny rolls his dice towards the screen, we’re involved spectators; the same can be said of the party scenes where confetti and streamers are placed close to the lens. Gilda herself moves in and out of layered shadows, and in her “Mame” number she steps forward and backwards in one bouncy, hair-flopping walk, teasing the cinema’s audience like the casino’s mostly male admirers.
Vidor also reserves Gilda’s initial appearances to strategic shots: her intro is a classic hair-toss after Mundson asks “Gilda – Are you decent?” and when she joins Johnny and Mundson at the casino, Vidor uses a reverse angle, showing just the back of their booth and their shadows. Once it becomes clear to audiences (and Mundson) that Gilda and Johnny share a torrid past, they’re often captured in two-shots while Mundson stands like a distant shadow, either at the camera’s edge, or in his own lonely medium shot.
Rudolph Maté, who was co-cinematographer on Hayworth’s Technicolor debut Cover Girl, really indulges in his gift for dramatic black & white imagery: his use of shadows, profiles, and striking layers of dim lighting is remarkable, and he captures the tormented relationships of each trio member. Mundson is often stark or seen in profile, being a watcher and possessive lurker; Johnny is brightly centered because in spite of his tough persona, he’s still vulnerable and forced to hide his feelings and insecurities; and Gilda always moves between layers of light and shadow because she has no idea where resides a safe place. Her reliance on shadows and dark pools within an otherwise brightly lit room says much about her mental state than any line of dialogue.
Ben Hecht reportedly did a clean-up job on the script, but what’s unique about Gilda’s dialogue is how the characters engage in weird elliptical verbal jousting matches, re-quoting each other’s lines, throwing them back at each other as puzzle riddles, and often saying exactly what they mean just to see if the other reacts in a manner that’ll unmask a secret, or expose a vulnerable crack.
It’s inarguable no other cast could’ve delivered the dialogue so tightly, because Gilda is superbly staffed by Columbia’s in-house talent. Ford depiction of Johnny’s personal torment and seething need for revenge is almost empathetic, whereas Macready never wavers in maintaining Mundson’s rigid calm and sense of firm control when his life may be in danger.
Gilda, however, isn’t a traditional femme fatale: she’s a victim of bad decisions and circumstances, and her appeal is both as a sex object and the wounded child aggressive men are compelled to own, and as happens repeatedly: her ‘husbands’ and flings exploit her neediness for their own enjoyment. As typical of a postwar noir, the warped mores and taboo-breaking is very frank: Gilda sleeps around, and her teasing new suitors makes it clear she’s open for business, and game for anything wild and disreputable.
The finale where Gilda confesses to exaggerating her wayward behaviour during her original courtship with Johnny was contrived for the era’s censors, and perhaps to please audiences: by this point the couple have to walk off into the sunset together because whether the screenwriters were aware during the writing stage, it would’ve been too cruel to deny the two charismatic actors and their characters a happy ending. Their future harmony is left rather grey, but certainly the closing music cue makes it clear a shroud of gloom’s been pulled away, and the couple has a genuine shot at some earnest happiness.
Columbia’s DVD sports a fine transfer with meager extras that include short text menus, trailer, and part of a longer Hayworth featurette that’s strangely lopped off at the end just as details of her later career get interesting. More than 60 years since its release, Gilda’s in need of a Criterion-style special edition, preferably on Blu-ray.
Charles Vidor directed Hayworth in a quartet of films, including The Lady in Question (1940) with Glenn Ford, Cover Girl [M] (1944), Gilda (1946), and The Loves of Carmen (1948) with Ford again.
Rudolph Maté would switch from cinematography to directing a year later, and was responsible for expanding the film noir and suspense genres with taut classics such as D.O.A. (1950) and Union Station (1950) before ending his career with colourful yet shallow spectacles such as 300 Spartans (1962).
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan