Hate can be a very exciting emotion. Very exciting. Haven’t you noticed that?
I guess one of the defining characteristics of film noir is its subversive nature. It tends to take traditional scenarios and situations and casts its dark and cynical shadows over them, carrying the audience along on a journey into a murky and unfamiliar world. This subversion can apply to the legal system, social matters, or affairs of the heart. Gilda (1946) concentrates on the latter category, spinning its tale of three people locked into a romantic triangle, unable to decide if they love or hate each other and apparently unaware of the distinction between these powerful and conflicting emotions.
The story begins in Argentina at some unspecified point towards the end of WWII. But there’s a timeless, otherworldly quality to it all – the end of the war and the ensuing celebrations are mentioned in a throwaway fashion that’s surely meant to emphasize the detachment of the lead characters from the real world and the more mundane concerns of most people. These people seem to exist and operate within their own self-contained universe, a glamorous yet nightmarish demi-monde, where the bigger picture of world-changing events are relevant only as a kind of Hitchcockian MacGuffin. The opening shot of the movie introduces Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford), a down on his luck grifter rolling dice on the waterfront and looking for easy marks. His strategy is a high risk one, not just because he’s a gambler but because his loaded dice are sure to attract the attention of disgruntled suckers sooner or later. When the inevitable happens, and Johnny finds himself the victim of a shakedown on a dark and forbidding wharf, his hide is saved by the intervention of a suave gentleman with a handy sword stick. This is Ballin Mundson (George Macready), a casino owner with an interest in shadier and even more profitable ventures. Johnny is nothing if not an opportunist and soon talks himself into employment, and a position of trust, with Ballin. For a time this mutually beneficial arrangement works and everything is sailing along smoothly on calm waters, until a woman appears and brews up a storm. Gilda (Rita Hayworth) is a sexual powerhouse, a woman whose passionate nature and provocative insolence seems to radiate from within. Her sudden and dramatic appearance as Ballin’s wife, after a whirlwind courtship, throws Johnny for a loop and irreversibly alters the dynamic of the relationship between the two men. Gilda’s arrival on the scene has an immediate and profound effect on Johnny – their introduction is a charged affair, and the confusion that Johnny’s barely able to disguise is shared by the audience. The rippling undercurrent of hostility gives rise to all sorts of questions about these people. I’m not giving away much here when I point out that it’s soon revealed that Gilda and Johnny were once lovers, before he walked out on her. And there we have our triangle: a cagey, duplicitous affair where the three protagonists circle each other warily and seem bent on mutual destruction. While it all develops nicely, I’ve always thought that the ending is weak – a little too abrupt and not all that convincing.
In my opinion, the reason Gilda is classified as a film noir is down to the theme more than the look. Cameraman Rudolph Maté does create some characteristically noir images – the waterfront opening, some of the nighttime casino scenes, and the way Ballin seems to blend and merge with the shadows – but much of the movie features bright, flat lighting. The edgy, darker tone stems largely from the setting and plot twists. A casino has a built-in sense of fatalism to it anyway, a place where fortune quite literally depends on the turn of a card or a throw of the dice. When this is combined with the South American setting, and the allusions to ex-Nazis involved in political and economic intrigue, it conjures up that sense of exotic danger that was very much in fashion in the mid to late 40s. Of course all this really only amounts to Casablanca style escapism; the key element that tips it over into the world of noir is the sadomasochistic relationship at the centre of the tale. The film is essentially a love story, but there’s a vicious, unpleasant side to the romance. Everything revolves around the title character, as she punishes both Johnny and Ballin, but in so doing she incurs arguably greater punishment at their hands in return.
The unquestionable star of the show is Rita Hayworth, the role becoming the one with which she would remain most closely identified for the rest of her life. Hayworth herself acknowledged this and it seems she had mixed feelings about it – her frank admission that the men in her life went to bed with Gilda and woke up with her is very telling. Whatever the personal legacy may have been, Hayworth certainly breathed life into what, in other hands, could have been a cardboard cutout character. She was excellent at getting across the contrast between the vivacious bravado that characterized Gilda’s public facade and the uncertainty and self-loathing she felt in more private moments. Her big scene, the one that is endlessly referenced in books and retrospectives, where she tries to provoke a reaction from Johnny with a knowing parody of a public striptease is justly famous. However, it also tends to overshadow the good work she did all through the movie.
While Rita Hayworth is the one most people will remember from the movie, Gilda worked wonders for the career of another of its stars. Glenn Ford, like a number of other actors, had seen service during the war, and Gilda was the film that gave him the boost he needed and raised his profile. Wartime experiences affected a lot of performers, it gave them a different air, a toughness and a touch of weariness too. Ford went on to work in some pretty good noir pictures, Lang’s The Big Heat being the best of them, and he did seem to belong in that world. As he did in his numerous western roles, Ford brought a kind of dissatisfaction with himself to his noir parts. Johnny Farrell has a veneer of cockiness and self-assurance to him, but Ford could always invest his characters with a nervy, slightly uncomfortable quality too. These may be little things yet they add up and make characters more believable and realistic. Although both Johnny and Gilda are flawed individuals, they’re not villainous. But a movie like this needs a bogeyman, and George Macready was a fine choice for the role of Ballin. Right from the beginning there’s a sinister air about him, and Macready’s innate charm and culture accentuates that. The repressed manner and wonderfully distinctive voice add to his calm menace – you honestly get the feeling that crossing this man would be an extremely foolish move. Of the supporting cast, I find Steven Geray the most memorable. This washroom attendant whose contempt for just about everyone, apart from Gilda, sees him making one flip comment after another seems to be given a lot of slack. I especially like the way we never find out exactly what leverage he has – the one time he’s about to reveal it he’s interrupted, and we’re left wondering.
I actually drafted this piece back in July, after I’d seen it one balmy Saturday night in an outdoor cinema in Athens – always a great way to enjoy a classic movie. However, I realized my holidays were fast approaching and so I decided to hold off publishing it. I though I might want to go back and tweak it some, but I’ve decided to leave it just as I’d written it a few days after watching the film. I’ve seen Gilda many times over the years and always enjoyed its dark romance. I wouldn’t say it’s one of those movies that reveals too many new things on repeated viewings yet it’s not the kind that grows stale either. It’s earned its classic status, and it’s well worth visiting or revisiting.