Rita Hayworth Sizzles in Gilda


GILDA (1946)

Directed by Charles Vidor

Columbia Pictures, 110 minutes, Not Rated





Gilda is an American classic and a film in which the costume designer (Jean Louis) upstaged the director. You’ll see it billed as film noir, romance, drama, and feminist. A lot of movie mutts don’t work, but Gilda does.


Gilda was released seven months after atomic bombs were dropped upon Japan. The public needed a more positive bombshell and it got Rita Hayworth. Gilda brings to mind a grittier version of Casablanca (1942), with the illicit gambling operations of Buenos Aires substituting for the look-the-other-way attitudes of Morocco. Both cities were also destinations for Nazis and ex-Nazis pretending they were never Nazis.


A different sort of rogue opens the movie. Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is an American drifter trying his luck at craps, though luck is subjective when you’re shooting with loaded dice. Johnny’s good at hiding how he cheats but not at disguising the appearance of chicanery. Had a well-dressed gentleman not appeared before Johnny was robbed and stabbed, his Argentinian sojourn would have been a short one. Not that he learns his lesson. In better clothing he tries to grift a well-appointed (though illegal) casino and its owner knows exactly how he’s cheating.


That owner is the very man who saved Johnny’s hide, Balin Mundson (George Macready). Instead of having Johnny thrashed, Balin hires him to spot other con artists. Before you can say “no more bets,” Johnny is Balin’s righthand man and has settled into an agreeable lifestyle–good pay, a bit of thuggery, fine clothes, smooth booze….


But Johnny is glum when Balin returns from a trip with a wife he acquired after a whirlwind romance: Gilda (Hayworth). She’s a knockout, but Johnny takes an instant dislike to her and the feeling is mutual. That’s because the two have sparred before and parted with acrimony as passionate as their fling had once been. Gilda’s not above blackmailing Johnny to do her biding in exchange for not spilling the beans on their shared past.


Johnny squirms when Balin assigns him the task of catering to Gilda’s wishes when he’s busy or out of town. She’s not the sort who wants to visit the zoo. Gilda steps out with every eligible man in Buenos Aires and a few ineligible ones. Johnny cleans up her messes and keeps them away from Balin’s ears. Johnny really hates her. Yeah, right; like anyone could who sees her wearing the most famous strapless gown in Hollywood history and slinking her way across the room cooing “Put the Blame on Mame.” (Well, Anita Lewis actually did the singing, but never mind!) You know it’s just a matter of time until she and Johnny are skipping the light fandango together.


What’s up with Balin? Who is he and who was he? The dramatic portion of the film hinges on things such as a plane crash, a safe, German thugs, a plane crash, a wisecracking rest room attendant known as Uncle Pio (Steven Geray), a detective named Obregon (Joseph Calleia), and tungsten. (Yes, I said tungsten.)


Objectively, critics of the day who complained that the film’s “happy” ending cheapened it had a point. There are other holes as well. Balin’s fate makes sense, but those of Gilda and Johnny are akin to Johnny’s dice, not on the level of objective logic. Nor does the romance and forgiveness wash given that it’s set up by sadistic entrapment and psychological torture. There’s also the matter that the Hollywood moral code of the day was such that what you see cannot be what you really get.


Given the setup and strictures, Gilda could have been a well-dressed mess, but the Ford-Hayworth-Macready triangle sizzles with such heat that plot and logic holes only appear after we’ve gorged ourselves on intrigue, Geray’s delicious comic relief, and Rita Hayworth. It may not be PC to say it, but Hayworth was one sexy lady, a Marilyn Monroe with brains. When she’s on the screen, it’s impossible to avert the eyes. Kudos to Glenn Ford for making us believe anyone could ever despise her.


Blame the Zeitgeist for the parts that don’t gel. Gilda came out in that seam in which World War II’s reckoning was in progress and the Cold War had not yet dawned. Neither had third-wave feminism, I hasten to add, so is it okay to mention that Rita Hayworth was ravishing?


Rob Weir

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