By David Katz
Laden with fear, intrigue and eroticism, and featuring a luminous, unforgettable leading turn by Rita Hayworth, Gilda (1946) is one of the best examples of noir in the genre’s post-war heyday. It is a film of many pleasures and a complete delight to watch: Hayworth redefines what a screen beauty can be, Glenn Ford as Johnny Farrell is the archetypal, morally ambiguous film noir male and Vidor directs with wonderful style and control, carrying us effortlessly from musical numbers to brutish fist-fights. And like Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946), it is extremely alluring, full of frank sexual innuendo and symbolism making it somewhat ahead of its time.
The plot could’ve been plucked from any dimestore crime paperback: an American drifter lost in Buenos Aires at the end of WW2 is caught cheating at a casino. Rather than prosecuting him, wily casino boss Ballin (memorably played by George Macready) recognises his skills and hires him as a right-hand man. His responsibility is to oversee the shady casino’s dealings and look after Ballin’s frustrated wife Gilda (Hayworth), already familiar from an earlier tryst back in America. Their relationship is decidedly love-hate, with Johnny still pining for her and jealous of all the male attention she courts, despite wanting to rein her in for the pleasing of Ballin (and indeed, some critics have interpreted a subtle homoeroticism to Ballin and Johnny’s exchanges).
Although the film has a hugely engaging, if over-the-top plot and a fine supporting cast, the film is overshadowed and even haunted by Hayworth’s indomitable performance. Her iconic entrance is, quite literally, enough to make your jaw drop and your tongue roll out, aggressively spinning into the camera and throwing back her long red hair in one graceful, theatric movement. It’s so beguiling that the re-release repeats the same sequence, like a sports instant-replay of a moment when fans can scarcely believe their own eyes. But Gilda is far from a one-dimensional, passive femme-fatale; she is subject to great cruelty and mistreatment by Ballin, and later Johnny, and seems to wield such power that the plot and its players cannot help but swivel around her, completely in thrall to her beauty and cunning. She sings a sweet tune as well, and it’s here in moments like her spotlit take on Put The Blame On Mame where Gilda becomes something wilder and weirder than film noir. The film is a witty, sublime comedy-musical in certain moments, topped with a spot of the battle-of-the-sexes tussling of screwball. Kinda like The Philadelphia Story (1940) with a gun license.
People often criticise films by denouncing characters, plots or settings as ‘stereotypical’, too close to received notions of how a story should play out. And they would have a point if they applied this logic to Gilda as its characterisations are so commonly assumed of noir: the brooding, callous hero, the damsel, the two-timing crimelord. Even the film’s imagery has been adapted by countless directors, most notably David Lynch in Mulholland Drive (2001) and Blue Velvet (1986) – there is no mistaking Jeffrey Beaumont peering through the blinds in Dorothy Valens’s apartment as some kind of homage to Gilda. But the key to appreciating this film is forgetting the legacy of noir and to simply revel in its luxurious, seedy atmosphere. Gilda is a film that has absolutely everything – give it a chance this summer over your Potters and your Pirates.