Gilda (1946)


Crikey, I’m sure nobody forgets Gilda.

I actually think my expectations were skewed somewhat by having watched Affair in Trinidad a few months ago – a film that was made several years after Gilda, reuniting its stars Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford in a film with a very similar plot in a blatant attempt to recapture the earlier film’s success. So I came to Charles Vidor’s Gilda rather expecting more of the same- a similar romantic drama set in exotic climes, but instead GIlda turned out to be much more. A growing sense of unease settles in when all sorts of subtext becomes apparent, the film gradually revealing itself to be a very subversive noir with all manner of sexual tension and homoerotic intrigue (I’m endlessly surprised by just how much homoerotic tensions are often hidden under the surface in noir films- the two killers in The Big Combo the most obvious example). 

“Pardon me, but your husband is showing.”

Presumably on the run in Buenos Aires from some past he’d sooner forget crooked gambler Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is almost undone by his slick tricks when he is saved from a dockside gunman by mysterious German sophisticate Ballin Mundson (George Macready). Mundson is a rich but crooked businessman whose illicit gambling casino across town is actually a front for something darker, and he takes Farrell under his wing, over time making the young American his right-hand man and confidante. Naturally one might wonder what Mundson was doing across town wandering the docks alone at night, but that’s one of the mysteries that simmers under the surface, unspoken. I didn’t catch onto it at first, but lines of dialogue that hint that they live together, and Farrell’s intense loyalty to Mundson which borders on psychopathic once Gilda is on the scene, begins to suggest all sorts of possible hidden meanings.

“You’re out of practice aren’t you – dancing I mean. I can help you get in practice again Johnny – dancing I mean.”

I’ve seen Glenn Ford in several noir of late, and in most all of them he is a calm, confident, quietly righteous man- he was generally cast as the handsome, clean American hero he tends to look like. Farrell, however, is a younger, rougher character than I have seen him play before, and I wonder how much he was aware of some of the subtext running under the surface: part of me thinks he must have done, but if so he was very brave accepting the role. Certainly his sexual chemistry with Hayworth is undeniable (indeed it slipped over into real-life) but his relationship with his mentor is perhaps the most interesting in the film.

“I can never get a zipper to close. Maybe that stands for something, what do you think?”

Following a business trip Mundson returns with a surprise package- a wife, Gilda, who is, of course, the woman who Farrell is trying to forget, and all sorts of jealous tensions arise – albeit from interesting quarters and unusual directions. Indeed, what we see of Mundson’s marriage to Gilda makes one wonder what kind of marriage it is, and whether Gilda is simply a trophy wife that serves one purpose, while his young protégé serves another.

“Quite a surprise to hear a woman sing in my house, eh Johnny?”

Gilda was, essentially, a Rita Hayworth vehicle, Hayworth being a major sex-symbol at the time (famously coined ‘The Love Goddess’ during the 1940s)-  the title character being a provocative, wildly sensual woman caught between two men: Gilda‘s particular twist being the two men. Gilda remains a powerful cinematic icon, perhaps indeed a scandalous one when the film originally came out, that perhaps overshadowed Hayworth for the rest of her life. Hayworth claimed to be a naturally shy, insecure woman, quite unlike her screen character, but one has to wonder- she was married five times and had an on/off affair with Glenn Ford that lasted some forty years, and was reported to have ruefully stated that “Men go to bed with Gilda, but wake up with me.” Gilda is the kind of role that actresses die for, the role of a lifetime, and Hayworth’s remarkable performance, fiery and tender, angry and wounded, is really quite haunting with an undercurrent of truth to it which suggests that perhaps Hayworth was more like Gilda than she cared to admit. She certainly has a raw beauty and sensual charisma that smoulders on the screen, a genuine force of nature, convincingly passionate and wanton and yet also tortured and insecure.

“Any psychiatrist would tell you that means something, Johnny.”

As usual with the best 1940s noir, the script is as sharp as a knife, with some wonderful quotable dialogue (which I’ve naturally sampled during this post). Gilda is an amazing film, and while one naturally has to wonder if someone watching the film from the perspective of the 21st Century is perhaps seeing too much under the films surface, I think as usual the rewards of some of these classic movies is that there really is more to them than meets the eye. We are too used, these days, of films that telegraph the plot, and in which characters and arcs are blatant and obvious, but suggestion can be far more powerful, I think. It gets under your skin more.

Sure, one can watch Gilda as just a darker riff on Casablanca, an escapist romantic drama set in an exotic location with colourful characters, but scratch under the surface and there’s another film in there. One darker and more seductive and mysterious. Certainly the differences between Gilda and the later Affair in Trinidad are pronounced and telling, and Gilda is ultimately a far more uncomfortable viewing experience for all sorts of surprising ways. 

And of course, one can simply re-watch the film to enjoy Rita Hayworth in a role and performance for the Ages: her Gilda is quite magnificent.  I’m sure nobody forgets Gilda.

2 thoughts on “Gilda (1946)

  1. I very much enjoyed reading that, as I do all your impressions of these noirs you’ve been catching up with.
    it’s always a sign of a good movie when it can be appreciated on a number of levels – all quite legitimate levels at that, and Gilda is undoubtedly a great movie. I had the pleasure of seeing it on the big screen in Athens some years ago at a summer outdoor cinema, a wonderful experience.

    As for Ford, he was terrific in his prime. Do check out, if you’ve no done so before, his western work, particularly with Delmer Daves.

  2. Pingback: The 2021 List: August – the ghost of 82

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