This adult film noir masterpiece showcases the most glamorous pin-up dream girl of the 1940s. Rita Hayworth, a young Glenn Ford and a sinister George Macready form a sophisticated, poisonous love triangle. Criminal intrigues and killer striptease fill out the bill.
The Criterion Collection 795
1946 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 110 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date January 19, 2016 / 39.95
Starring Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford, George Macready, Joseph Calleia, Steven Geray, Joe Sawyer, Gerald Mohr, Ludwig Donath, Argentina Brunetti, Eduardo Ciannelli, Ruth Roman.
Cinematography Rudolph Maté
Film Editor Charles Nelson
Music underscore Hugo Friedhofer
Written by Marion Parsonnet, Jo Eisinger, E.A. Ellington
Produced by Virginia Van Upp
Directed by Charles Vidor
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Some of the best ‘movie’ times I remember were seeing classic pictures cold, with no knowledge beforehand. Back at film school they’d show us things we’d never heard of, often in prints of incredible good quality. Seeing a picture like The Big Heat for the first time under optimum conditions left a huge impression. Being blasted with White Heat at top volume left us practically staggering out of Melnitz Hall. Who would have thought that a movie as violently impactful as The Wild Bunch had been made twenty years before?
Charles Vidor’s Gilda was definitely one of these game-changing experiences. It’s hard to know where to begin. The movie transcends its noir category, scoring very heavy in the categories of mystery thriller and erotic romance; it even has a touch of postwar political paranoia. For a Hollywood film, its heady vision of Buenos Aires as a capitol of high-toned intrigues is unmatched. More importantly, the on-screen chemistry of the stars Rita Hayworth and relative newcomer Glenn Ford is so potent that no ’40s match can hold a candle to it. Gilda had a female producer, Virginia Van Upp, and powerful input from cameraman Rudolph Maté. It was a sensation in 1946, a time when innovative filmmakers back from the war made bold artistic statements — The Best Years of Our Lives, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Killers — before industry jitters and the political freeze stifled creativity.
Marion Parsonnet wrote for producer Van Upp and Jo Eisinger’s name appears on several noir greats, but their work adapting Gilda is unequalled. American drifter and cheating gambler Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) cleans up in a card game on the dangerous docks of Buenos Aires. He’s befriended by the imperious and intimidating Ballin Mundson (George Macready), who hires Johnny to run his fancy nightclub & casino, but keeps him apart from his deals with shady foreigners, involving a’ tungsten cartel.’ The efficient Johnny is up to the task of managing Ballin’s shifty affairs, but he doesn’t count on Ballin’s new wife Gilda (Rita Hayworth). An irrepressible bombshell, Gilda was once Mrs. Farrell, and she seems intent on goading and teasing Johnny over his new status as her husband’s errand boy. They decide not to tell Ballin about their previous ‘relationship,’ an arrangement that starts big trouble when Johnny is given the job to watch over Gilda while Ballin is away conducting his hidden business. Gilda wastes no time throwing herself at every available man in town, to give Johnny the message that she’s available to all but him. For his part, Johnny smoulders and suffers but plays hard and unmoved by Gilda’s provocations. What’s clear is that their mutual love/hate is going to have violent effects — especially when and if Ballin finds out.
Gilda pretty much covers all bets for a romantic thriller. The setting is a fabled Latin American playground packed with wealthy gamblers, European profiteers and Americans attracted by the easy money and loose morals. The central casino is an impressive palace, one of those noir enclaves where the manager has a god-like roost above the floor, and can observe through shuttered windows and hidden microphones. Ballin also does his shady illegal business there, and can pay off his associates with rigged wins at the Roulette table.
None of the key relationships are on the level. The poised Ballin Mundson is a strangely effete control freak who rarely bats an eye. When he makes a ‘friend’ of Johnny, it looks like nothing less than a gay pickup — Ballin’s conversation frequently turns to his ‘other’ friend, a lance hidden in his cane. Ballin comes off as an intellectual and an elitist, a combo usually coded as corrupt if not necessarily ‘bent.’ In his case we know he’s weird. He’s married Gilda as some kind of trophy. She relates to him well enough — Gilda knows how to manage any man – but in their intimate moments, Ballin hovers over her like a dark statue, like Dracula.
Young Glenn Ford possessed a naturalness in front of the camera that, along with his looks, all but guaranteed his stardom. He wouldn’t really solidify his acting for a few more years, and he makes good use of a wolf-like grin that would soon be dropped from his repertoire of screen faces. A tough-guy hero, Johnny places profit over romance. he likes the good deal he’s got with Ballin; a deal that seems perfect until it’s interrupted by the arrival of Gilda. At that point Johnny’s inner mania begins to show itself. He denies his interest in his ex-wife but his every expression betrays an inner need channeled into bitterness. And Gilda knows just how to get to him.
Gilda is of course the focus of desire for Ballin and Johnny, and for most any man who gets as much as a brief glimpse of her. Rita Hayworth would later be quoted as saying that the men in her life were really looking for Gilda, a sad statement from someone most would assume to have few if any difficulties finding a good mate. The fictional Gilda uses her allure as her main way of relating to people. Although the script drops hints that she really hasn’t been sleeping around, the evidence on screen says different. She throws herself at any tall stranger who can dance, the dependably slimy Gerald Mohr being a notable example. Johnny grits his teeth and boils inside. Thwarted desire makes for very good drama, and it’s quite a spectacle watching Gilda tie Johnny into jealous, furious knots.
The film’s alignment of actor personalities to roles is utterly original. We know exactly what we’re getting from the cast-to-type players of Casablanca — Bogart, Bergman, Raines and 20 top character actors are all known quantities. In this film George Macready is too weird to be predictable, and Glenn Ford too neurotic to be a reassuring hero. Rita Hayworth is amazing. We know that Columbia fashioned the whole movie around her, yet Hayworth’s channeling of this Ultimate Woman is unlike anything she did before. It’s too bad that even Orson Welles could only use Hayworth as yet another cold-fish femme fatale, in The Lady from Shanghai. Everything the actress did after Gilda lacks the complexity of this original creation.
Hayworth’s alter ego ‘Gilda’ is a screen goddess beyond the dreams of ordinary men, yet she has an unfulfilled capacity for honest love. No wonder royalty sought Hayworth out from the other side of the world. The best dialogue line in Huston/Capote’s wickedly funny Beat the Devil comes when Humphrey Bogart has been placed under arrest as a smuggler in North Africa. It looks like he’s going to rot in jail until his Arab captor politely asks, “Do you really think you could get me an introduction to Rita Hayworth?” Bogie knows he’s home free: “Oh, I should think so…”
The more than slightly creepy Ballin has big deals going that skirt international law. The nature of his associates (Ludwig Donath among them) suggests an arrangement shady with Nazi ‘investors.’ This material doesn’t date the movie as much as RKO’s Cornered or Hitchcock’s Notorious, both of which seemingly want to alert the public to the persistence of Fascist evil. By 1948, scripts with surviving Nazi conspiracies were being rewritten to favor communist conspiracies. Gilda is one of those mature post-victory films that accepts the idea that opportunism and greed doesn’t have to have an ideology attached.
True, the show revolves for the most part around the hypnotic aura of Gilda, but Charles Vidor’s ultra-smooth direction has other graces as well. In a beautifully designed sequence, Ballin flees in a small plane over a wide, pale ocean. When he’s out of the way, the Johnny-Gilda relationship really heats up. The beach scene is one of the few in which the sun is shining — Gilda takes place in an exotic Never-land where even hoods wear dinner jackets, and the women rise and dress just in time for evening cocktails.
The unavoidable topic is the scene, Rita Hayworth’s striptease to the song “Put the Blame on Mame,” performed to torment Glenn Ford’s character. Later sex farces would make the man impotent or invent comic excuses for sex not to take place, as in a Doris Day movie. Gilda uses perverse psychology between two antagonists so proud and spiteful that their love has become a veritable war. Gilda feels she can no longer escape from Johnny, so she decides to humiliate him instead. Her striptease is nothing less than astonishing. No stage performer ever had such perfect hair or such an amazing dress. Jean Louis designed a specially fitted top with molded support parts, that wouldn’t fall down no matter how Hayworth moved. What this means is that in a dress with no back and little front, Gilda can twist, bow, dip and throw her arms up with nary a wardrobe malfunction.
The dance is in no way gratuitous; it’s the culmination of Gilda and Johnny’s atomic sex war. Gilda wins when Johnny blows his cool entirely, exploding in anger. It’s one of the few erotic scenes in American movies that doesn’t feel constrained by the Production Code… the emotions and the sexuality feel real.
A big help is the music. Hugo Friedhofer’s manages an authentic Argentine feel, with many tangos woven into the underscore. Songwriters Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher provide the two showcase tunes. Gilda performs “Amado Mio” in Montevideo as a solo; it’s among her best and most authentic musical numbers. Although it feels like an older standard, “Put the Blame on Mame” was written for this show. Films noir often makes strong use of conventional romantic tunes, David Raksin’s “Laura” being perhaps the most famous. But “Mame” is a saucy ballad, in which Gilda explains the odd role she must play in the world. The only similar piece of cinema that’s more iconic is Marlene Dietrich’s cabaret song “Falling in Love Again” from the similarly delirious The Blue Angel. I suppose the limiting difference is that the vocal artist Anita Ellis does the actual singing. Her velvety voice is an excellent match.
Seldom mentioned are two beautifully measured supporting performances. Unsung character actor Steven Geray is amusing as Uncle Pio, a casino lackey who serves as Johnny’s conscience. No matter how well Johnny is doing, Uncle Pio still spits and calls him a ‘peasant.’ Johnny is furious yet can’t seem to fire Pio — does he know too much? Even more effective is the great actor Joseph Calleia as Obregon, a familiar fixture at the casino whose exact function isn’t immediately known. Calleia was typecast as a dependable bad guy, but his bad guys were often more charismatic than the heroes. He actually played a wide range of characters, and Obregon is one of his best. Gilda hasn’t a single stereotyped South American character.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Gilda offers a sleek, clean encoding of a full restoration from the UCLA Film and Television Archive. The images are appropriately lustrous, and the sound is in fine shape, with a good range. The music mix comes off particularly well.
The disc has to work for its extras. From a 2010 Sony disc (I’m fairly sure) come a Richard Schickel commentary and an appreciation with Martin Scorsese and Baz Luhrmann. Schickel is more engaged than usual but still talks too much in generalities. Scorsese and Luhrmann are sincere but offer lightweight comments — does the fact that Luhrmann is dazzled by Hayworth really mean anything?
Much more to the point is noir czar Eddie Muller, who in 22 minutes basically gives us Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Gilda. His points have depth and are well expressed. I only heard one argument that struck me as strained, when he asserts that the Johnny Farrell character is bisexual. Of course the writers loved adding all the murky/obvious hidden relationship business, but it’s still creative subtext, commenting as much on all relationships as the ones we see. Other factors enter into it. At the start of the film Johnny is an able-bodied American bumming around Argentina instead of fighting in the service. That’s sub-sub text… if it were on the surface Johnny would seem an even darker character.
A 1964 episode of the Wolper TV show Hollywood and the Stars does an okay gloss on Hayworth’s career, trying to show the real woman while offering evidence that she’s a ‘Love Goddess.’ The early clips are cute but when they reach the pinnacle of her career, all the best material is from Gilda. An early shot shows her cruising Hollywood Blvd. in a convertible, passing marquees for The Cardinal, How the West Was Won and Cleopatra.
Sheila O’Malley’s good liner notes distill much of the essence of Gilda into an efficient statement of the film’s impact when new, noting that reviewers seemed to ignore it, while the public ate it up. I’ve always suspected that Hayworth’s appeal, at least in this film, was universal, that she was so powerful that she excited women as well. Ms. O’Malley captures some of that.
The cover design doesn’t seem too creative this time around — solid pink to represent Hayworth? — but the insert folder has a mini-poster of Gilda in a seductive pose. Behind the menu plays a track of Gilda singing “Put the Blame on Mame.” Criterion usually doesn’t put audio spoilers on its menus, and besides, it’s not even the actress’s voice.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Gilda Blu-ray
Supplements: Audio commentary from 2010 by film critic Richard Schickel, New interview with film noir historian Eddie Muller; Martin Scorsese and Baz Luhrmann appreciation, trailer; liner notes by critic Sheila O’Malley
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 29, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson