A shyster plagued by an attack of conscience - and an even worse bout of sexual frustration; the erotically-charged flame of desire he once gave up, but now is forced to accept as the wife of his boss, and a suave, strangely asexual mobster, dangling the proverbial carrot in front of both their noses, even as he continues to pull their strings like the supreme puppet master: it all makes perfect sense in Charles Vidor’s Gilda (1946); a peerless thriller - half noir/half woman’s picture and so sultry and seductive, one can easily overlook its’ dis-satisfactory conclusion and move on, only to recall the myriad of pleasures along the way. These continue to tantalize from the peripheries of our collective imaginations long after the houselights have come up. To the world-weary postwar generation, Gilda must have acted like a tonic; Stephen Goosson and Van Nest Polglase’s production design, conjuring a sublime and escapist South American paradise, sumptuously lit and moodily photographed by Rudolph Maté.
Apart from Rita Hayworth’s obvious attributes, Gilda is a supremely gorgeous movie to look at; its palatial casinos, wrought-iron corralled manor houses, complete with palm and fountain-spewing courtyards, are the epitome of forty’s chichi grand living that most suffering through the malaise of wartime rationing could only daydream. And yet, for all its grandeur, there is a pervasive and unsettling sense of danger permeating from beginning to end. Gilda is another world entirely; one populated by salacious playthings resting their satin-haired heads, glycerin tears and crocodile smiles affixed, on the arms of men who’ve bought and paid for the privilege. Marion Parsonnet’s screenplay (from a story by E.A. Ellington, and adaptation by Jo Eisinger – with an unaccredited assist from Ben Hecht) sparkles with villainous charm, all of it quietly observed through the unvarnished clarity of the hotel’s washroom attendant, Uncle Pio (Steven Geray), who sees right through the hypocrisies of the hoi poloi rather unapologetically.
Central to one’s appreciation is Rita Hayworth’s perennially electric performance as Gilda Mundson Farrell; the gal most likely to succeed with any man in long pants, and, who manages to needle her way back into the rather stubborn good graces of American gambler, Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford). Her, decent? Hardly. But Gilda has guts – and class – even if she chooses to scabbard this latter virtue in a faux iniquity. How Gilda ever expects to win Johnny back using this flawed charade is questionable. Stirring his jealousy is one thing. Making him see her as the twenty-cent tart who can only be redeemed by his reclamation is quite another.
Hayworth is undeniably the sparkling gem of this piece. If, as Columbia Pictures press declared “there never was a woman like Gilda” then it’s equally certain Hayworth was never more exotic, enticing, or maliciously exuberant than herein. That it all works out in the end for Gilda and Johnny is a wee too cockeyed and optimistic for most tastes. Gilda pretends at being a sybarite. But actually, she’s just a homespun girl, spurned and chagrined, whose thoughts have been twisted towards jealousy and revenge. Hayworth’s smoldering sensualist ought to have been the femme fatale of the piece; but in Gilda she’s the good girl – faking bad to win back the affections of the one man who ought never have let her go in the first place. Okay, we’ll accept that…I guess. After all, until this penultimate letdown, Gilda remains one of the most fantastical, dream-like and nightmarish love affairs ever experienced; masterfully cobbled together and infectiously malignant yet appealing.
Gilda’s other strength is the two men who dance around her maypole, bumped out in all the right places: the laconic, embittered and impoverished Johnny Farrell, and, dangerously aloof, but affluent, Ballin Mundson (George Macready). Johnny’s a bum. But Ballin gives him a new start in life as his croupier; recognizing his rare gifts for managing the rough trade as well as the international jet-setting scammers, out to rob his casino of its assets. Takes one to know one, I suppose. But Ballin’s not a very patient man…or, perhaps, is – biding his time and giving Johnny and his own new bride just enough rope to tie the noose around both their necks. After their first adversarial ‘cute meet’ Ballin informs Johnny “She doesn’t like you.” But that’s just it. Gilda likes Johnny. She likes him very much - too much, in fact, to mask the art of her deception in cruel barbs and daggers aimed in his direction. Playing the bitch is a good show. But it doesn’t wash with Ballin. Or does it?
But back to Ballin and Johnny for just a moment: a very ‘queer’ pair indeed, this master and his mate – one owing the other everything, but refusing to pay out, and ultimately, betraying the ‘kindness’ to get what he wants – namely Gilda! There’s an asexual quality to Ballin and Gilda’s marriage; a sense she’s merely a beard for this rather smooth-shaven, impeccably quaffed and mannered, but decidedly effete Ballin; acquired to shield his own reputation from hushed whispers and scrutiny, even as he procures a more interesting ‘relationship’ with Johnny – one going well beyond mentor/apprentice or even father/son. After all, why should this interesting cross between devil-may-care bon vivant and steely-eyed businessman take on a rat like Johnny, hustling it in the gutters for a few measly dollars, and make him his second in command?
Does he really see Johnny’s innate abilities to manage his casino at a glance, only later proven, or is Ballin attracted to this shiftless gambling bum’s more obvious attributes. Pitted against George Macready’s Mercurian phantasm of masculinity, Glenn Ford emerges as the strapping, dark-haired Adonis of the piece, regrettably, not so easily corruptible by his Svengali, but made sullen and sexually frustrated by Galatea. Johnny doesn’t perhaps see Ballin’s truest intensions at first, but they’re there just the same. Superficially, the penultimate return of Ballin in the final reel, merely to pick off Johnny, is meant to solidify and explain away Ballin’s jealousy. Subliminally, however, it positively reeks of homoerotic subtext. After all, killing Johnny means Gilda can’t have him either.
Viewed in another light, Gilda adheres to the time-honored precepts of the traditional noir thriller; her willful deconstruction of Ballin and Johnny’s ideal buddy/buddy friendship, momentarily mislabeling her as the supreme femme fatale. Yes, Hayworth’s vixen is responsible for the creeping malaise of anxiety and betrayal slowly dividing these two men. But, the movie’s rather hopeful and decidedly ‘too perfect’ conclusion, (Uncle Pio stabs Ballin in the back, using his ‘trick’ cane, presumably to keep Johnny’s virtue intact; also to satisfy the Hollywood censors - which absolutely forbade a murderer walking away from the scene of the crime), is further diffused after the arrival of Det. Maurice Obregon (Joseph Calleia), who informs everyone that since Ballin faked his own death earlier, and has been legally declared dead, no murder has actually been committed now, despite the presence of a body; hence no one is going to jail.
Gilda also obeys another noir tradition; the ‘first person’ narration. It’s Johnny’s story we’re hearing – straight from the horse’s mouth…partly. Newly arrived in Buenos Aires, Johnny quickly lands himself in a heap of trouble; attempting to cheat some hardcore river rats out of their ill-gotten gains during a game of craps. He’s only spared having his throat slit – or worse - by the quick-thinking intervention of a complete stranger, Ballin Mundson. Here again, it becomes necessary to question why Ballin – a man of obvious wealth and culture, should be out near the wharf at such an ungodly hour; perhaps, trolling for some fresh meat down by the docks. Johnny certainly fits this bill; a handsome diamond in the rough. Ballin gives the slick reprobate some good advice – not to try his illegal flimflam at the nearby high-priced casino. But is this good advice? Or does Ballin instinctively know Johnny will be tempted by his backhanded invitation.
Sure enough, a short while later, Johnny saunters into the casino, cheats at blackjack and is caught by a pair of goons, who take him upstairs to meet the big boss – none other than Ballin Mundson. This ought to have spelled disaster for Johnny, as Ballin is hardly the forgiving sort – rather, a high-rolling underworld mob boss who cloaks his vindictiveness under a very thin veneer of courtly finesse. And yet, something about Johnny defies Ballin inflicting his revenge. Perhaps, ‘revenge’ was never the point of their second ‘cute meet’. It ends with Ballin hiring Johnny to oversee the daily operations of his posh gambling house. In short order, Ballin not only gives Johnny a job, but a fashionable place to live and stylish clothes to wear; benevolent patriarch or sugar daddy biding his time…hmmm. Despite Johnny’s shining up like a new penny, washroom attendant, Uncle Pio remains cynically unimpressed. A mule in horse’s harness is still a mule, as far as Pio is concerned. In fact, despite Johnny’s newfound authority (he practically runs the place), Pio has no compunction about labelling him “a peasant” to his face.
The plot thickens after Ballin disappears for a short while, leaving Johnny in charge of the whole works. Only when he returns, it’s with a most unwelcomed surprise nobody expected: Gilda – his newly acquired trophy wife. There’s an immediate love/hate chemistry brewing between Gilda and Johnny, questioned by Ballin, but vehemently denied by each of its adversarial participants. While Johnny plays dumb, Gilda baits her ex on the very real prospect his own future hangs in the balance, predicated on his being nice to her. Sometime later, Johnny and Gilda have it out in her boudoir. She’s all too eager to remind how easily she could get him fired. But Johnny elucidates for Gilda that Ballin isn’t exactly the type to treasure used/damaged goods. While it seems unlikely Ballin would be completely obtuse about their mutual past history, he nevertheless entrusts Gilda to Johnny’s care in his absence – presumably, knowing something of her wild streak and penchant for luring attractive young men to her bedroom.
Gilda does everything in her power to complicate Johnny’s second career as her chaperone; running off with various young studs, disappearing for hours, and attempting a seductive – and very public - striptease in her slinky black gloves and cocktail dress inside the casino’s ballroom, cooing “Put the Blame on Mame”. As one might expect, this really turns the temperature up a degree, incurring Johnny’s wrath. After escorting Gilda away from the cheering crowds, Johnny strikes her across the cheek. As her attempts to embarrass him grow more vile and obnoxious, Johnny becomes more spiteful and abusive.
We momentarily diverge from this lover’s triangle; interrupted by the arrival of two spurious ‘businessmen’ (Ludwig Donath and Jean De Briac) – actually Nazis – to whom Ballin owes his entire existence. Ballin is part of their secret society, used to finance a tungsten cartel. As part of their agreement, all of this secret organization’s assets have been entrusted to Ballin to shield the other two in their complicity. This arrangement places all of the responsibility on Ballin’s shoulders. If he is caught, it is his neck alone that is on the line. However, on the flip-side, it also affords Ballin absolute power over some formidable assets he is quite unwilling to relinquish after the men return; having decided it is safe for them to take over once again. In the meantime, Argentine government agent, Det. Obregon has become suspicious of Ballin’s casino operations, suspecting them as a front for much more nefarious activities. During a lavish New Year’s Eve masked ball given at the casino, the businessmen threaten Ballin. This time, they mean business. Instead, Ballin, wearing a disguise, manages to murder one of the men in the ballroom as the lights dim for the countdown to the New Year.
There’s no going back. Ballin must take everything he can get his hands on and flee the country. Regrettably, he arrives home just in time to discover Gilda in Johnny’s arms. The couple pursues Ballin, as does Det. Obregon, to a remote landing strip where Ballin manages his daring escape, piloting a private plane over the ocean. Informed by Obregon that the plane likely doesn’t have enough fuel to complete the journey, Johnny explains he doesn’t believe Ballin is trying to escape – merely commit suicide. Sure enough, moments later the plane explodes over the open waters, its fiery wreckage plummeting into the sea. Unbeknownst to anyone, Ballin has planned the incident perfectly, having parachuted to safety and a hidden lifeboat. Now, he must bide his time and remain out of sight. During an interim of several long months, the mood between Gilda and Johnny turns rancid. He is racked with guilt and determined – if not in life, than certainly in death – Gilda will remain faithful to the memory of her late husband. It’s a bizarre turn of events; Johnny marrying Gilda out of spite, then making her a veritable slave in their apartment; forcing her to attempt various extramarital affairs, only to realize all of her would-be lovers are actually house detectives working for Johnny, designed to satisfy Johnny’s own perverse sexual starvation of his new bride. If ever there was a moment to suggest Johnny and Ballin were more the real couple in love, this montage of failed in flagrante delicto definitely hints at the possibility.
Regrettably, this prison of his own design begins to unravel, preying upon Johnny’s own sexual frustrations as well. Oh, how Johnny could use a woman like Gilda right about now. Or perhaps, ‘use her’ he does, in committing them both to this celibate purgatory from where no viable escape seems possible. She would kill him too, if only still waters didn’t run quite so deep. You see, despite Johnny’s repugnant behavior, Gilda can’t help but lust after her man. Uncle Pio makes Johnny see the light. Besides, there’s no future for either of them in Buenos Aires. Gilda inheriting Mundson’s estate and assets means neither of them will ever be free of the police investigation into Ballin’s counterfeit activities that could land them both in prison as accomplices after the fact. Johnny and Gilda reconcile. He urges her to pack in haste. Perhaps, there’s still time. Only, as the pair enjoys a farewell drink at the bar with Uncle Pio, they are surprised by Ballin – back from the dead.
He’s come for his money; also, to put a period to Gilda and Johnny’s happiness together once and for all. It’s the end of the line. However, in holding Gilda and Johnny at gunpoint, Ballin has forgotten he’s left his special walking stick with a retractable knife on the bar, leaving Uncle Pio to stop his former employer with a fatal stab wound to the back. Obregon arrives too late to prevent the murder. Both Johnny and Pio attempt to convince Obregon they have killed Ballin. Obregon listens to their lies, pleasantly amused, before reminding everyone that Ballin was declared legally dead months ago. A man cannot die twice. Besides, there is such a thing as justifiable homicide. Johnny gives Obregon the incriminating documents from the safe, exposing the Nazi crime syndicate, and, Johnny and Gilda surrender all of their open hostile toward one another for good.
From a purely psychoanalytic perspective, Gilda is beguilingly flawed character study; its WWII themed espionage mere icing on an already exceedingly decorative cake. Rita Hayworth is the ravishing cherry on top; an edifying star turn as the malevolent vixen, positively oozing sex appeal out of every pore. Yet, Hayworth’s performance goes well beyond mere titillation. The golden rule in Hollywood has often obfuscated the fact that just because an actress is beautiful it stands to reason she has absolutely nothing going on in her head. Hayworth’s Gilda is the exception; one among many, in fact, and utterly stimulating in all its complexity. When she sings “‘Amado Mio’…love me forever, and let forever begin tonight,” Hayworth’s mannerisms and intonations reveal a hint of sadness; perhaps, even abject surrender of the truly damned, her willowy arms caught in silken smooth undulations. These seem to beckon, yet simultaneously grasping for anyone to throw her drowning self-esteem a life-preserver.
Is she a fallen angel, a divisive manipulator or a wounded child? Perhaps a little of all three bottled up into one explosive package, simplistically mislabeled as ‘sex appeal’. The innate tragedy Hayworth stirs from within transforms what could so easily have been yet another variation on the ‘I am a bad woman’ stock cliché into a delicious confection; made sweet/then sour by all the venomous hurt, spite, bizarre empathy, self-loathing and seething rage welling up from inside. Rita Hayworth was already well-established in Harry Cohn’s pantheon of stars by the time she made Gilda. Indeed, around the back lot she was frequently referred to as the ‘Columbia lady’; her box office alone keeping the studio fiscally in the black. It is primarily for Gilda that Hayworth is remembered today: an enduring, eye-catching, emotionally supercharged powerhouse, likely to endure as long as there are memories of that Eden lost to us all, but strangely rekindled each time Hayworth cocks her head to the side, auburn tresses lazily falling back as her mood turns from elation to contempt within a matter of seconds and those dark and flashing eyes produce daggers of morbid self-pity that could stop any man in his tracks. Put the blame on Mame, if you must. But let’s hear it once again for the gal who knows how to spark, peak and maintain our interests: an enthrallingly blemished creature of shadow and light.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment continues its rather annoying trend of releasing many a longstanding classic from their vaults only in the European marketplace. Thankfully, Gilda on Blu-ray is region free and thus, easily imported to any household in the world via Amazon.com. This hi-def mastering effort utilizes archival elements preserved by the UCLA Film and Television Archive in cooperation with Sony Pictures, The Library of Congress, and The National Film and Television Archive in the U.K. Gilda looks very fine in 1080p; good solid depth and clarity with robust contrast, nuanced grays and organic film grain, all accurately preserved. Better still, it does not appear as though any DNR or undue sharpening have been applied to this image. There are some fluctuations in grain distribution, the occasional age-related artifact, and, some minor light fading apparent. Otherwise, you are going to love this disc.
The audio is a minor disappointment: no DTS, but the 2.0 mono Dolby Digital sounding very good nonetheless. Sony has cleaned up this audio, stabilizing its dynamic range and minimizing noise levels down to a very slight hiss during quiescent moments. The real insult here is a near complete absence of extras. We get the very same/very brief and superfluous commentary fluff piece by Martin Scorsese and Baz Luhrmann and that’s it. For shame! Bottom line: we could poo-poo Sony’s shortsightedness. But this disc looks so darn good, it’s hard not to simply smile and say thank you – even if it was a hassle getting our hands on a copy in North America. Bottom line: highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)