The more one understands about film history, the easier it is to recognize monumental examples in entertainment. I had always enjoyed watching Gilda for reasons that couldn’t be pinpointed until now. However, I had the impression that it wasn’t just the liberation of its unlikely antagonist. It was her sultry libido, actually. As well as the ways in which the film unapologetically instigates the limits of the Production Code. It does so in style (thanks to costume designer Jean Louis), and was a direct response to the somewhat ostentatious films of the time.
A few filmmakers in the 1940s seemed to ask themselves an important question: why keep pretending that the dark edges of life don’t exist? In asking, life was breathed into a murkier world of storytelling and the result was Film Noir.
This isn’t to say that other genres weren’t of great depth and integrity. The way that these restrictions were handled by the likes of Frank Capra, George Cukor, and Leo McCarey, was masterful and deserving of praise. The same can be said of the glitz of Busby Berkeley, which provided a much-needed solace for a nation in despair. Still, there are many things about Vidor’s esteemed classic that place it far ahead of the others in terms of sophistication. This is due in part to how human and flawed the characters are. Gilda is also a splendid battle of the sexes and much more relatable than a screwball comedy. For anyone with experience or imagination in the matter, I assure you that it surpasses even some contemporary films.
The protagonist of the film is Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford). Johnny is handsome, stout in personality, and experienced in self-promotion. As someone who “makes his own luck,” Buenos Aires is an ideal playground for shadowy pastimes. Johnny isn’t given much of an opportunity to find out, though, as his loaded dice soon put him in the path of Ballin Mundson (George Macready). Munson is the no-nonsense owner and operator of an exclusive gambling establishment. He realizes that it would be lucrative to have a man like Johnny working for him at the tables—or at the very least keeping an eye out for fellows with a similar “skill.”
The two have an almost father-son bond, which is mostly fueled by Mundson. He sees himself in Johnny, being a man of vice who creates concessions in life at the slight misfortune of others. As it turns out, Mundson has affairs that are far more important and profitable than gambling. In fact, they’re causing him a lot of undue attention and strife, which he’s used to navigating. The same goes for Johnny, and they agree to work together. The two also agree on another issue that is stretched to vitality: gambling and women don’t mix. With the assurance that Johnny won’t let his logic be strewed by the folly of the female, Mundson leaves him in charge to settle some affairs abroad. To Johnny’s dismay, Mundson returns from the trip months later as a married man. To his horror, his sexpot of a wife is his ex, Gilda (Rita Hayworth).
The film abruptly shifts from this slick story of two men navigating the underworld in tuxedos to the happenings of a red head who’s as thorny as a rose. Hayworth’s breathtaking beauty is paraded so drastically that it comes off as ultra-erotic at times. There’s a scene were she’s walking around her bedroom in a sheer nightgown and she steps to a lamp, exposing every curve and a lot more underneath. I can only imagine what it must have been like to see that on the big screen all over the world in the 40s.
Naturally, Johnny and Gilda are embittered and their disdain for each other both puzzles and morbidly amuses Mundson. It becomes established that Gilda is a golddigger and interested in climbing the social ladder using her charms. Both men resent this, but she does it with such style that you can’t be angry. You can only pity Johnny as he is forced to keep her protected and amused (she’s now Mundson’s property) while watching her blatantly disregard his feelings and her perceived honor.
A series of events unfold that tests the strengths and discipline of everyone involved until the noir elements return. The film’s end is dramatic and in no way happy. It is hopeful, though, and leaves a lasting impact when paired with the subtle moments of realism throughout the film. You can find yourself stunned that you could be so intrinsically involved in fiction.
I have a tough time labeling Gilda as a noir and I sort of refuse to. Noir has a formula and a style that the film simply does not. Not entirely. The motif in noir is often the MacGuffin; a plot twist that has no true explanation but everyone seems entangled in. Noirs are typically a brooding mysteries that destroy lives as they unfold.
In Gilda, the motif is a reoccurring song that is playing on the radio when we first see her and sung by the character often. The meaning makes the film more of a dark tale of attraction than it does crime.
This is not a flaw, but rather an instrument with which the viewer can set it apart from the rest of the genre—as most will argue it’s a noir. With The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity, for example, the romantic elements take the back burner. In Gilda, it’s the most important thing cooking. Thus it illustrates how tension and macabre can be just as prevalent in romance as in thrillers. Sure there’s violence and cartels and an evasive sense of justice in all regards, but they are so minuscule that you hardly notice them. They are simply elements for the characters to sift through. The thing you retain is Gilda…the most consuming, unattainable, and haunting of all the classic sirens.
Originally published for Amoeba Music’s “Movies We Like” blog, Feb. 17th, 2017
“Boys have the darnedest way of growing up, Ballin. Almost when you’re not looking.”