Gilda April 17, 2017
Charles Vidor’s Gilda (1946) feels like something of a cinematic parallel to The Crystals’s “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)”: it’s a feature dedicated to the toxic relationship between a slinky, one-liner spewing femme fatale and a handsy, slimy, self-made man. The relationship in question sees that hate is synonymous with love and that a frustrated slap is an abbreviation of an intense lovemaking session. And so the movie’s intent is unclear: is this a film damning a female’s sexual liberation? A film striving to encapsulate the dangers of sexual obsession? A film that, like last year’s quizzical Elle (2016), wonders if there’s a line that can connect love, violence, passion, and victimization?
Jo Eisinger and Marion Parsonnet’s screenplay never unravels the intricate thematic tangles because the film’s original intent was never to devise a complex study of pernicious desire anyway. The original intent, it seems, was to give flame-haired sex symbol Rita Hayworth the ultimate vehicle to showcase her erotic appeal with exaggerated fantasy.
With two vampy song and dance numbers to perform, gobs of cutting asides and comebacks to snarl, and breathy breakdowns to milk aplenty, she goes from studio siren to screen goddess. Had she not made Gilda, chances are she’d have been a Linda Darnell or a Cyd Charisse, a sizzling beauty who proved her acting adroitness on many occasions but never had the chance to headline a star summarizing feature. With Gilda, Hayworth gets that chance.
In it, she is not the leading character but the woman who torments our protagonist. That protagonist, haughty and ambitious, is Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford), a career gambler in Buenos Aires, Argentina looking to earn a quick buck. Disheveled and perpetually drunken, he’s a victim of society, a symbol of post-war disillusionment. But after nearly getting robbed in a pitiless, pitch-black alleyway one night, he is coincidentally spotted by Ballin Mundson (George Macready), a stranger who rescues him from his doom.
By sheer luck, Mundson turns out to be the owner of a wildly successful (and wildly illegal) gambling joint which attracts the lower class and the bourgeoisie alike. Figuring Farrell, who has almost nothing to his name, might be an effective right-hand man given his lack of prospect, Mundson unhesitantly hires him as a trusted employee, rising in the ranks as the clock ticks.
But conflict proliferates when Mundson comes back from a trip with a new wife in tow. She is Gilda (Hayworth), a sexually confident knockout who openly flirts and openly flaunts her independence. To most, especially her newfound husband, she’s the temptress you immediately try to call your own the second you lay eyes on her. But to Farrell, she’s the embodiment of shameless evil. As soon as we see them interact for the first time, it’s clear that they’ve met before. And a few days later is it finally addressed that they were, in fact, embroiled in a volatile relationship shortly before Mundson asked for Gilda’s hand in marriage.
Being the antagonistic fireball that she is, Gilda doesn’t pretend that her connection with Farrell doesn’t exist. She instead flaunts her being a taken woman, and, when not boasting her state as another man’s wife, brandishes her ability to seduce any man of her choosing.
This drives Farrell mad, and the two’s exchanges become increasingly hostile the more Gilda indulges in her façade of the ultimate femme fatale. But that hostility seems underlined in a strange sort of romantic passion, and when tragedy seemingly strikes, the duo is forced to grapple with the carnal wildfire burning between them.
But being that it’s a fusion of film noir, Joan Crawford-esque women’s pictures, and the subtly adventurous pangs of To Have and Have Not (1944) or Macao (1952), Gilda never seems completely settled just acting as a twisted romance movie. It more inconspicuously appears as a psychosexual drama with an appetite for destruction, that destruction being the liberation of Gilda.
The end game is to tame the shrew: like the allure that came with the personae of Theda Bara and Pola Negri, there’s an underlying malevolence that comes with Gilda’s gleeful vocalization of her sexuality. And that dates the film, as the ending suggests that Gilda was wrong for nourishing her lust and that the domesticity awaiting her is something of a treatment for her illness of living the way she wanted to live.
Which means that the movie is at its most enjoyable when Hayworth’s Gilda is a tease, a snake, a bat out of a hell with a bad habit of running her mouth when the moment’s completely wrong. It’s at its worst, then, when Gilda is at the mercy of another man’s hand. The old-fashioned point, I suppose, is that a woman shouldn’t even consider existing in a world in which catering to a man isn’t her utmost priority. That point, unfortunately, conquers, which might have made sense to audiences of 1946 but disappoints the modern viewer. Gilda deserves to be a vixen without consequences. But one can’t always get what they want out of a classic Hollywood that wouldn’t dare betray its rigid morality.
And yet the movie never ceases to enrapture, an effect of Hayworth’s ethereal star power. In Gilda, she’s impeccable, a glamorous divinity and then some. So many actresses simply hold their own on the screen and, in the process, make something of an impression. But Hayworth is incandescent, so in command of her cinematic intensity that she seems to exist in another time and in another place, everyone around her incapable of living up to her luminosity. She doesn’t even sing the two songs that have helped solidify the film’s standing as one of the golden age’s greatest achievements (Hayworth was forced to lip sync to the honeyed tones of Anita Ellis). And she still hypnotizes.
Infamously, Gilda detrimentally affected Hayworth’s personal life. A naturally shy person who self-admittedly suffered from an inferiority complex, her war with herself was worsened after the film’s release. Because her very name forever became linked with a notorious (and fictional) sex bomb, most romantic interests assumed the sexual prowess of Gilda would be found in the actress, too. But such was never a reality. "Men go to bed with Gilda,” Hayworth bitterly recounted years later. “But wake up with me.” And she’d never find a role that would allow her to explode off the screen quite as powerfully.
The film has slightly molded since its release and more so than ever feels stale whenever Hayworth isn’t in a particular scene. But it bangs more than it whimpers, and given its leading actress, its leading actress’s chemistry with co-headliner Glenn Ford, and Paramount’s unabashedly lavish treatment of the material, Gilda is a startling