US (1946) Dir. Charles Vidor
People often forget that some legendary Hollywood stars had lengthy and fruitful careers despite usually being defined by a single performance. Some would crave to be remembered at all, let alone for one iconic role, but mention Rita Hayworth and chances are “Gilda” will be the automatic response.
Not to undermine Hayworth’s talent as an actress and dancer but as the titular female lead of this noir drama, the eternal praise she receives is justly warranted. Many images from this film have become part of the visual lexicon in depicting the archetypal femme fatale. Jessica Rabbit may have had Veronica Lake’s hair but the sultry, sashaying appearance – Gilda!
Set in Argentina post World War II, an American gambler Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) arrives in Buenos Aires and immediately ruffles some feathers with this deceitful tactics. When accosted in an alley, Johnny is saved by the dapper Ballin Mundson (George Macready), owner of a high-class casino who gives Johnny a job, eventually elevating him to his right hand man.
Mundson takes some time off leaving Johnny in charge of the casino but when he returns he has a surprise, his new wife Gilda (Hayworth). Young, vivacious and stunning Gilda catches Johnny’s eye but not for the reason you might think. Mundson is keen for the pair to get along which proves futile, although fate has its own way of handling things.
The script from Jo Eisinger and Marion Parsonnet, based on a story by E.A. Ellington, may deliver the love triangle one might expect from the above plot summary but not quite under the usual “loyal henchman covets his boss’s wife” circumstances that have been played out numerous times before and since.
With the three principals each having flawed personalities and ambiguous agendas this is less a tale of true love winning over adversity, and more a character study of people playing a game where all of them yet none of them are holding the trump card. A simple, honest conversation could have prevented the drama that unfolds but then we wouldn’t have a film. So we watch intrigued and on edge as three lives are ruined by lies.
As revealed through a wordless exchange of uneasy facial expressions, Johnny and Gilda have a past which is left unexplained throughout the film, obviously with Mundson the last one to know. The marriage happened on a complete whim and wherever Gilda came from she was now in a more prosperous place, materialistically at least, and Mundson can afford it.
Johnny and Gilda exchange veiled barbs privately and in front of Mundson which he ignores and assigns Johnny as Gilda’s guard dog. This sees Gilda go out of her way to infuriate and antagonise Johnny, acting, as he claims, on Mundson’s behalf but is he about to rekindle their past relationship behind his boss’s back?
The beauty of the situation is that there is genuine hatred between Johnny and Gilda, albeit for an undisclosed reason, so the pretence is not for Mundson’s benefit, keeping us on our toes as to whether an affair will occur of if the games being played are out of lingering spite. Throw in the fact that Mundson is aware of this frisson and might be playing one off against the other and we have a very intriguing scenario on our hands.
But it’s not all about the awkward romances – Mundson’s casino is under surveillance by the Argentine authorities, interested in two shady German businessmen who frequent the casino but not to gamble. Government agent Obregon (Joseph Calleia) tries to befriend Johnny to get information but Johnny won’t talk, but a mid film development will change all of this as well as have a lasting impact on his and Gilda’s lives.
Again the script deftly brings about a change of tone for the film that sees Gilda and Johnny occupy different positions from before, revealing darker, emotional sides to their characters. Without revealing too much, Gilda is affected the most, going from capricious manipulator to pitiful victim, yet remains true to her default nature of self-preservation.
Rather boldly for a code-era film, the underpinning nature of Gilda’s hold over these two men is alluded to as being sexual but not in the nature of the obvious. When dancing with Johnny, many a double entendre rolls off Gilda’s forked tongue, tearing away at Johnny’s alpha male ego, while Mundson himself refers to his trusty cane as “his little friend”. Either Gilda is the ultimate succubus or a real tough act to follow.
For such a cynical and often gnarly film the presentation is one of typical glamour for the era and ostentation, the casino setting rarely less than vibrant and festive. The theme of the wardrobe is constantly chic and elegant with Hayworth never looking less than immaculate in every scene, the slinky black dress in the saucy for the time Blame It On Mame performance now instantly recognisable.
Yet, director Charles Vidor takes the unusual step of occasionally shooting Hayworth in the dark, when other directors (Hitchcock for example) would have kept he light on her face at all times. Despite this her presence shines through the shadows, as does the glint in her eyes; conversely, silhouetted shots of the men silently convey a sinister undertone to their characters.
All three leads interact with each other well and while Hayworth’s star went stratospheric after this role, we cannot under estimate Glenn Ford as the immoral chancer Johnny and George Macready as the perfidious Mundson. Also worthy of credit is Steven Geray as washroom attendant Uncle Pio , whose pithy epigrams provide both levity and a much needed reality check.
Because the story has been retold on numerous occasions in its wake, Gilda may seem like a cookie cutter noir drama, but it is in fact a rather clever script with many a subtext left open to interpretation in discerning our reading of the complex yet well-drawn characters.