Background: Born Margarita Carmen Cansino, Rita Hayworth achieved ’40s superstardom as both a pinup girl and Columbia Pictures’ biggest star; she was one of Hollywood’s biggest box office draws in 1946. As one of her era’s preeminent sex symbols, it was inevitable that she would be cast as a film noir femme fatale. Gilda, Hayworth’s first foray into noir, remains her most iconic performance.
Plot: Armed only with his wits and a pair of loaded dice, drifter Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) arrives in Argentina, where he becomes the right-hand man of an illegal casino boss. The boss’s wife, however, is Gilda (Rita Hayworth), a ravishing beauty who used to be Johnny’s lover. The three become points in a deadly love triangle, complicated by escaped Nazis and Johnny and Gilda’s intense love/hatred of each other.
My Thoughts: Gilda, like many films past and present, is a bit of a mixed bag. The bad first: the languidly-paced film is a good fifteen or twenty minutes too long and thus drags at times. Stylistically, it’s a not-exactly-successful fusion of film noir and glossy Hollywood romance, something that seems a bit antithetical to the former genre. To me, film noir is all about urgency, about immersing the viewer in a maze where danger lurks around every corner. This sense is often lacking in Gilda, whose second act gets bogged down in repetitive, dialogue-heavy scenes: take a drink every time the titular character is described as “superstitious” or she and Farrell mention their love-hate relationship.
The film does have its moments, however, most of them involving Rita Hayworth. Simply put, the then-Mrs. Orson Welles was one of the most ridiculously photogenic women in Hollywood history. Cinematographer Rudolf Maté shoots her first scene like a magazine glamour shot, all soft-focus and smoke billowing towards the camera. It’s not hard to see why Glenn Ford’s Johnny finds himself completely beguiled by her: (Fortunately, the script gives her plenty of innuendo to work with.)
Maté and director Charles Vidor (no relation to the somewhat more famous King Vidor) also do good work with the film’s opening: when I think of film noir, I think of a hardboiled voice-over and chiaroscuro lighting. Similarly, the film’s main setting is another major asset. The hotel’s illegally-run casino is a tremendously evocative location, a Bond-esque landscape of tuxedoed men around roulette tables with the lights on and a gloomy cavern after hours. Veteran art director Van Nest Polglase (six Oscar nominations) gives the place character with details like patterned glass and intricate wrought iron balustrades.
As a collection of solid parts that quite don’t gel together, Gilda is kind of a hard film to judge. It’s a certainly better than the previous two films I’ve covered in this retrospective, and Rita Hayworth was certainly incredibly attractive, but I never really found the story or characters compelling.
Fun Fact: Gilda was entered into the first ever Cannes Film Festival.