The Big Sleep (1946)

The Big Sleep (poster)

Background:  Although he spent his formative years in England, Raymond Chandler will always be remembered for his stories of mid-century Los Angeles sleaze. Along with James M. Cain and Dashiel Hammett, Chandler pioneered modern crime fiction and laid the foundations of film noir. His hard-boiled vision of the city remains a cornerstone of the genre, echoing through Chinatown (1974), Pulp Fiction (1994), and L.A. Confidential (1997.)

Chandler only began writing seriously at age forty-four, when the Depression and his own alcoholism ended a long career in the oil business. Desperate to find work, he began writing for the influential detective magazine Black Mask, honing his skills in a series of twenty-one novellas. He “cannibalized” two of them – science fiction authors would call it a “fix-up” – into his first novel, The Big Sleep. First published in 1939, Chandler’s debut introduced his most famous creation, cynical private detective Philip Marlowe.

I read The Big Sleep for this review and was struck by Chandler’s style: he had a tremendous economy of language and a true ability to create atmosphere. Despite his English background (he once remarked that he learned “American” as a foreign language), he really knew the Southern California landscape and had an ear for American vernacular. Writing from Marlowe’s perspective, Chandler immerses the reader in the detective’s nocturnal world. In one haunting passage, Marlowe drive through Laurel Canyon “past lighted windows in big houses on ghostly enormous grounds, vague clusters of eaves and gables and lighted windows high on the hillside, remote and inaccessible, like witch houses in a forest.” Chandler’s writing is so noir that you can see the chiaroscuro lighting.

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Described by some critics as Los Angeles’s epic poet, Chandler conquered Hollywood in 1944: RKO released the first Philip Marlowe film, Murder, My Sweet, and Chandler collaborated with Billy Wilder on the script for Double Indemnity. The James M. Cain adaptation became a hit with audiences and critics, receiving 7 Oscar nominations (including one for the screenplay) and earning a place in the film noir pantheon. A month after Double Indemnity premiered, Warner Brothers released an adaptation of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not that featured the first pairing of real life lovers Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Looking to capitalize on the couples’ notoriety, studio mogul Jack L. Warner asked producer/director Howard Hawks to find a new vehicle for them. Hawks suggested The Big Sleep

After acquiring the rights to the book, Warner Brothers assembled an incredible team to bring it to life. Besides reuniting Hawks with Bogart and Bacall, the studio also brought in  Max Steiner to compose the score and a talented group to write the screenplay. Nobel laureate William Faulkner worked with noted science fiction author Leigh Brackett – she would co-write Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back much later in life – and longtime Hawks collaborator Jules Furthman adapt Chandler’s novel. The trio finished the screenplay in eight days and production started immediately, with principal photography wrapping up in January of 1945. (The finished product contains multiple references to wartime rationing.)

Warner Brothers, however, decided to tinker with the film before its wide release; Bacall’s agent pressured the studio to giver her more screentime. While several of the film’s slower, more dialogue-heavy scenes were reduced or completely eliminated, Casablanca (1942) screenwriter Julius Epstein added sexual innuendo and developed the relationship between Bogart and Bacall’s characters. After these reshoots, Warners released The Big Sleep in August 1946. While I watched both versions, I don’t want to spend a lot of time discussing the differences between them, so this review will cover the final cut.

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Plot Introduction: Wheelchair-bound millionaire General Guy Sternwood (Charles Waldron) has grown too old and infirm to control his two daughters’ scandalous behavior. When a blackmailer targets Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), the general hires private eye Philip Marlowe (Bogart) to investigate. Marlowe discovers that blackmail is only the beginning of the Sternwoods’ problems: the family has become caught up in a spider’s web of murder and betrayal. Several killings ensue, all of which seem to involve racketeer Eddie Mars (John Ridgely.) To make things even more complicate, the detective falls in love with Carmen’s older sister Vivian (Bacall.) Having solved the blackmail case, Marlowe descends into the L.A. underworld to solve the murders and protect the Sternwood sisters.

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My Thoughts: When I mentioned echoes, I had something very specific in mind, as my first encounter with The Big Sleep was really when I watched The Big Lebowski (1998.) Yes, that Jeff Bridges cult classic is an affectionate pastiche of Chandler’s writing, sharing its setting, basic plot structure, and specific details – i.e. a disabled millionaire attended to by an obsequious butler – with the author’s first novel. (Joel and Ethan Coen seem interested in a kind of cinematic intertextuality; 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou has a close relationship with the films of Preston Sturges.) If you take my recommendation and watch or rewatch The Big Sleep, keep an eye out for how closely it mirrors The Dude’s strange adventure.

At its best, golden age Hollywood has this kind of mythological resonance, the ability to be rediscovered and reinterpreted by each new generation. Decades later, the images remain vivid in the popular imagination: a giant gorilla atop the Empire State Building, Dorothy Gale leaving sepia Kansas for Technicolor Oz, Norma Desmond ready for her closeup. I think that these film  endure because they are the product of many talented people instead of one auteur, as myth belongs to no single author. Described by Roger Ebert as “a case where ‘studio interference’ was exactly the right thing,” The Big Sleep offers a perfect example of mythology created on time, on budget, and within genre conventions.

Few exemplified creativity within the system as much as director Howard Hawks. If you’re not familiar with Hawks, Peter Bogdanovich provides the perfect introduction to the filmmaker in his book Who The Devil Made It. Bogdanovich illustrates the director’s ability to handle many different genres by imagining a viewer watching a bunch of classic Hawks films and asking, “Did the same guy direct all of these?” Hawks, unlike many acclaimed directors – you always know when you’re watching a Hitchcock film or a Kubrick film – never overshadows the stories themselves.

Even with his famous versatility, Hawks is an especially good fit for The Big SleepPhilip Marlowe might be the perfect Hawksian hero, a consummate professional and nonchalant in the face of death. Hawks, who once said that “for me, the best drama is the one that deals with a man in danger,” excelled at directing this kind of characters in films like Only Angels Have Wings (1939.) Furthermore, he directed some of the studio era’s finest romantic comedies, and the witty, fast-paced banter of Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940) prepared him for Chandler’s sarcastic dialogue. When people talk about The Big Sleep, they always bring up the verbal sparring between Bogart and Bacall; Hawks has them play it like a screwball comedy.

And, of course, Hawks had Humphrey Bogart at the height of his powers. By the time he made The Big Sleep, “Bogie” was one of Hollywood’s brightest stars, with The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942) in the immediate past and Key Largo (1948) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) on the horizon. Bogart as a trench coat-clad detective has to be one of the most iconic images in film history, and his Philip Marlowe is even better than his Sam Spade. Because Bogart’s screen persona and Chandler’s character are almost identical, Bogart basically plays himself throughout the film, demonstrating again and again why he remains a symbol of cool. As one might image, he and his then-wife have fantastic chemistry; she’s just as good at delivering razor-sharp dialogue as he is.

Bogart and Bacall give stellar performances, but they also get a lot of help from a fine supporting cast. As Carmen Sternwood, Martha Vickers has to communicate her character’s troubled psyche through innuendo alone. In the novel, Carmen is completely out of control with sex and drug addictions; Marlowe’s initial task is to retrieve and destroy nude photos of her. Obviously, the Production Code meant that none of this could be said outright, but Vickers’ nymphomaniacal performance makes that unnecessary. She’s another great femme fatale. To play all the story’s various criminals, Warner Brothers brought together an army of strange-looking character actors: particularly effective are Ben Welden and Tom Fadden as Mars’ goons and Bob Steele as a hitman aptly named Canino. As Mars himself, John Ridgely plays an anti-Marlowe, someone just as quick-witted and unflappable but on the other side of the law.

While The Big Sleep undoubtedly ranks among the great films noir, its visual style doesn’t always match the genre’s iconic look. When I think of noir, I think of shadows: screens dominated by monolithic slabs of darkness. On this film, cinematographer Sidney Hickox goes in a different direction, with light defused through rain and fog and streetlamps reflecting off vintage cars. The film’s world is grayscale rather than the high-contrast black and white I’d associate with, say, John Alton’s cinematography. Many of the film’s most evocative scenes involve Marlowe sitting in a parked car, smoking and waiting for something to happen. These shots have a tremendous power, and I realized – after some thought – that Hickox’s cinematography channels the loneliness of Edward Hopper paintings.

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When the story movies to the interior of blackmailer Arthur Geiger’s home, The Big Sleep fully embodies the classic film noir style. In both the cinematic and literary versions, the plot always returns to the Geiger house, which seems to be a magnet for death. Drawing on Chandler’s description of a creepy Laurel Canyon bungalow, Hickox and the production designers place lights and Geiger’s collection of “exotic” Asian trinkets in a way that creates strange, moving shadows. Simply put, I can’t think of a better illustration of how dreamlike (nightmarish?) old black and white film can be.

Along with the cinematography, the film’s screenplay preserves the novel’s atmosphere. Faulkner et al keep the flavor of Chandler’s dialogue and make it even wittier, adding double entendres and clever wordplay. As I mentioned before, this innuendo-drive approach is important because so much of the novel – homosexuality, drug abuse, pornography, nymphomania – would have been deemed unacceptable for contemporary audiences. Despite these limitations, the screenwriters keep much of the original plot, allowing all the members of Chandler’s underworld to form alliances and double-cross each other. They make one major change, however, transforming Vivian Sternwood from a minor character to the main love interest. In the book, Marlowe abides by a strict code of ethics and refuses to get personally involved with clients.

While it would be easy to criticize this as purely commercial, I think that the writers made the right decision. As every reviewer mentions, The Big Sleep has a labyrinthine plot built around interlocking murder mysteries. (This blog has a handy chart that explains the complicated connections between all the characters.) Simplifying the plot, however, would simply not work, as so much of the novel’s tense atmosphere comes from its tangled threads. Instead of cutting out plot points, the writers change the focus, using the crime plot as a backdrop for the romance story. As strange as it may seem, this through-line ties the film together as well as The Dude’s rug: now, Marlowe has a personal investment in the Sternwood family that did not exist in the original novel.

At the very beginning of Chandler’s book, Marlowe enters the Sternwoods’ stately home and sees “a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree.” Many scholars have identified Arthurian themes in Chandler’s ouvre (his original name for Marlowe was Mallory, as in the compiler of Le Morte d’Arthur) and, in many ways, that is what the film gives us. The many hands that it passed through shaped it into an archetypal, Campbellian story: a knight who wears a fedora and drives a coupe ventures into the dark world of 1940’s Los Angeles to save a maiden. Like no other film I can think of, The Big Sleep is a hero’s quest within a romantic comedy within a film noir.

Author’s Note: Much of the background information in this blog post came from Creatures of Darkness: Raymond Chandler, Detective Fiction, and Film Noir by Gene D. Phillips. If you’re interested in the noir genre, this book is definitely worth checking out.)

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The Stranger (1946)

stranger_xlgBackground: Despite their privileged place in the film canon, Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) underperformed at the box office, causing a rift between Orson Welles and RKO. The studio put the multi-talented enfant terrible on a tight leash for his third film as director: Welles, who beat out John Huston for the job, was barred from making changes to the script and had to pay for any cost overruns out of his own pocket. Although Welles feuded with producer Sam Spiegel during the production, he did – for the first and probably last time in his career – manage to complete the project on time and on budget. The Stranger, which received an Oscar nomination in the now-defunct category of “Best Story” (i.e. treatment), did better business than Welles’ previous two efforts and became his first financial success as director. His struggles with the system, however, were just beginning.

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Plot Introduction: Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) is a Nazi hunter, a UN special agent tasked with bringing Germany’s most notorious fugitives to justice. His current target is the infamous war criminal Franz Kindler, the man who orchestrated the Holocaust and the Third Reich’s scorched earth tactics. Tracking the Nazi to Harper, Connecticut, Wilson poses as an antiques dealer and gathers intelligence on the inhabitants of the seemingly idyllic small town. He realizes the Kindler has taken on the identity of Charles Rankin (Welles), a respected teacher at a prestigious local prep school. Wilson tries to convince Kindler/Rankin’s wife Mary (Loretta Young) of her husband’s true identity, but she refuses to believe that she could have married a Nazi. After the teacher’s behavior grows increasingly erratic, Mary becomes suspicious, causing the war criminal to plot her death. Kindler lays a trap at a local church bell tower but Wilson intervenes and finally ends Kindler’s reign of terror.

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My Thoughts: As if there was any doubt, Russel Metty’s cinematography and Welles’ mastery of atmosphere show that the film noir was in full bloom by 1946: The Stranger teems with shadows. Metty – who would later win an Oscar for his work on Spartacus (1960) – shoots seemingly normal locations from just the right angle and with just the right low-key lighting to make them seem desolate and alien. The Stranger finds its horror in deserted high school gyms, family dinners, and small-town churches.

There’s something very Hitchcockian about the whole endeavor and I was immediately reminded of Shadow of a Doubt (1943), another film that creates suspense and black humor by placing a psychopath in Norman Rockwell small-town America. Like that Hitchcock flick, The Stranger has a lot of fun contrasting undeniable evil with the kind of quirkiness that one would expect from The Andy Griffith Show. In a comedic scene, Robinson’s g-man jokes that a local general store owner (a character right out of a sitcom) is a high roller because he gambles 25 cents on a game of checkers; the Nazi hunter is clearly amused by the banality that now surrounds him. Even Kindler himself has a mundane, unexplained obsession with clocks.

The basic premise – a genocidal Nazi disguised as a pillar  of the community – remains a very solid idea for a film, a concept perfect for the mid-century noir style. While probably not an auteur vision like Citizen Kane, The Stranger proves that Welles could do what a director was asked to do in the studio era: oversee the translation of a good script into a good movie.

He also makes a major contribution as an actor. Welles plays Kindler/Rankin with a great deal of intensity, particularly in a scene where the German betrays his identity during a heated discussion of the Nazi mindset. He’s simply fantastic here, throwing out references to Germanic paganism, Wagner, and the Teutonic Knights in an extended, scenery-chewing monologue. Fortunately, this is as over-the top as Welles gets in The Stranger; he would reach much greater levels of hamminess later in his career. I’m also thankful that Welles opted for his normal accent instead of an affected German one, as I remember his Irish brogue in The Lady From Shanghai (1947) being one of that film’s weaker aspects.

Edward G. Robinson does a decent job as the protagonist, playing him in the same no-nonsense way as many of his other roles. While I totally buy him as a tough g-man, I didn’t get as much from his performance as I did from films like Scarlet Street (1945) or Key Largo (1948), or Soylent Green (1973) for that matter. The problem, I think, is the script: while we know that Wilson is a competent man of action, that’s about the only thing we know about him. We never even learn his first name. Because the script gives Robinson so little to work with, the character seems a bit generic, and the story would be stronger if they developed him more, gave him some relationship or quirk or personality trait that makes him seem like a real person. Mr. Wilson is really no match for a genocidal Nazi.

Kindler/Rankin’s wife Mary doesn’t fare much better. Although I know that she was a respected, Oscar-winning actress in her day, Loretta Young’s performance falls kind of flat for me. Of all the characters in The Stranger, she has the most drastic arc; it can’t be easy to learn that your spouse was behind the Holocaust. The script, unfortunately, tells us as much about her as it does about Edward G. Robinson’s character. The film’s minor characters provide a bit of local color and not much else.

Without a doubt the screenplay (allegedly featuring uncredited contributions by Welles and Huston) is light on character development. However, that is to be expected from a 95-minute thriller and, besides, The Stranger focuses on other things. While it has its flaws, the film also has four or five truly awesome, truly memorable scenes; I’ve already mentioned Welles’ Nazi monologue at the dinner table. Kindler’s meeting with a former comrade is another highlight. As the two men walk through the depths of a New England forest, Meinike (Konstanstin Shayne) tells Kindler about his religious conversion and asks him to confess his many, many sins. The Nazi then kills Meinike and buries his body in the woods, his coverrup of the murder eventually leading to his downfall.

Like all good thrillers, The Stranger ends with a suspenseful finale. Wilson and Kindler’s fatal confrontation atop the church bell tower is simply awesome, a set-piece worthy of Hitchcock. Welles and company taking one of the most enduring cinematic tropes – Roger Ebert calls it “the fallacy of the climbing villain” – and run with it, crafting something truly memorable. So much of this scene’s effectiveness comes from its sound design, from the clicking and whirring of the clock gears that ratchet up the tension. The editing (by Ernest J. Nims) is fantastic as well, providing an almost textbook example of how to cut a suspense scene. Welles’ over-the-top death – Franz Kindler is impaled on the sword of a statue and falls from the tower – is the perfect ending.

In a broader historical context, The Stranger is one of several 1946 thrillers about Nazi hunters; we’ve already scene a comedic Marx Brothers take on this genre. It’s not hard to see why, as the discovery of Axis Powers atrocities must have been on everyone’s mind in the postwar period. Of all these films, this one is probably the most thought-provoking because of its Nazi hiding in plain sight: members of the Third Reich really did live double lives as upstanding citizens.

 

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

The Postman Always Rings Twice

Background: First published in 1934, James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice was so controversial for its sex and violence that it was banned by the city of Boston. Although MGM optioned the book shortly after it came out, it took twelve years for the Motion Picture Production Code to loosen up enough for an adaptation to be made. By that time, Cain’s novel had already inspired two other film adaptations: the French Le Dernier Tournant (1939) and the Italian Ossessione (1943). Incidentally, the latter (an unauthorized version directed by Luchino Visconti) is considered by many to be a pioneering work of Italian neorealism.

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Drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) hitches a ride to a roadside diner/gas station whose owner – a jovial Greek man named Nick (Cecil Kellaway) – immediately offers him a job. Frank accepts, but he’s less interested in the money than in Nick’s much younger wife Cora (Lana Turner.) Frank and Cora begin a passionate relationship and decide that Nick’s presence complicates things too much. After one failed attempt, they succeed in killing the Greek in a staged car accident. With the help of a cunning district attorney (frequent Alfred Hitchcock collaborator Hume Cronyn), the two get off with only six months of probation for Cora.  Nick’s death, however, solves nothing, as Frank and Cora have to deal both with guilt and with their growing mistrust of each other.

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I read James M. Cain’s novel for this review and – regardless of how I critique the 1946 film adaptation – I strongly recommend it. Simply put, it’s a quintessential American crime story, a cornerstone of hard-boiled fiction (and thus film noir), an engrossing yarn that never lets up for a second. I’m particular impressed by Cain’s economical writing style: in only 100 pages, he creates a sleazy, cynical world and brings it to its only logical conclusion. He does so much with simple, declarative sentences. There’s not a wasted word, and Cain’s ability to get inside the heads of morally ambiguous characters makes this eighty year-old book seem strikingly modern.

In short, the book’s adapters have their work cut out for them. Fortunately, the filmmakers (journeyman Hollywood director Tay Garnett and producer Carey Wilson) get something fundamental absolutely right: this movie’s cast is fantastic. John Garfield is such a perfect fit for Frank Chambers that I can’t imagine any other actor in the role (I haven’t seen the 1981 version with Jack Nicholson.) The man just looks a drifter: hard living is written all over his face and he can be both approachable and vaguely menacing at the same time. I’m toying with the idea of giving out Oscar-style awards for this year and Garfield will definitely be a candidate for Best Actor if I do so.

Someone else I’ll have to give serious consideration to is Cecil Kellaway as Nick, who completely embodies the blissful ignorance of Cain’s character. The Greek is the only innocent character in The Postman Always Rings Twice, the only one not trying to screw everyone else over; he’s too consumed with ouzo and the day-to-day running of the diner to notice the two lovers plotting against him. (There’s a fun half-suspenseful, half-comedic sequence where he almost catches on.) Cain’s novel is almost like a Greek tragedy, with every character possessing a fatal flaw: while Frank’s is lust and Cora’s is ambition, Nick’s is merely stupidity.

Completing the triangle is Lana Turner in her most famous role. On a DVD special feature, USC film professor Richard B. Jewell describes her introduction (the camera pans from a tube of lipstick rolling on the floor to her legs; cut to the look on John Garfield’s face) as one of the great introductions in film history, and I have to agree: one can totally understand why Frank Chambers would kill for her. Although she’s a tad shrill and over-acty in the “dramatic” scenes, her onscreen chemistry with Garfield is a major asset for the film. The biggest challenge facing any film adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice is convincing the audience of Frank and Cora’s passionate affair; this is made even more difficult for the 1946 version by the constraints of the Production Code.

Fortunately, Garfield and Turner completely sell it, using body language and subtle movements (he lights her cigarette) to communicate their relationship to the audience. In the spirit of Cain’s novel, the film tells us all we need to know about them and how they feel about each other in fifteen minutes.

After the Greek’s murder, The Postman Always Rings Twice turns into a legal thriller. I’ve seen this structure in multiple crime films of the era and it’s often a problem: both Dial M for Murder and Double Indemnity (1944, another Cain adaptation) become much less interesting after murder has been committed. Fortunately, this film manages to avoid that pitfall by with black humor. Fully embodying Cain’s characters, Hume Cronyn and Leon Ames play opposing attorneys who treat Frank and Cora’s trial like a game, placing bets on the outcome and finding legal loopholes to piss each other off. (Cronyn plays a somewhat similiar comic relief character in the 1943 Hitchcock film Shadow of a Doubt.) Their unabashedly unethical behavior prevents the film from sagging in the middle.

The film’s strong cast gets plenty of support from behind the camera. First, George White’s editing impressed me, especially during Frank and Cora’s failed attempt on Nick’s life. He uses increasingly quicker cuts from Frank acting as a lookout to oncoming cars on the highway in an almost textbook example of how to edit a suspenseful scene. Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch’s script stays mostly faithful to the original book, and even includes my favorite line from it: Garfield was born to say, “Stealing a man’s wife, that’s nothing, but stealing his car, that’s larceny.” The score (by George Bassman and Erich Zeisl) is very noticeable, but it does effectively underscore dramatic moments. Although Sidney Wagner’s cinematography isn’t remarkable, it is good, solid, functional camerawork that never distracts. Finally, I’ve already given director Garnett an indirect compliment by mentioning the cast’s uniformly good performances.

There are a lot of good things in this adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, and I strongly recommend it, but I can’t help but feel like it misses something from Cain’s novel. I think that something is Cain’s writing itself: so much of the novel’s urgency comes from it being narrated by Frank Chambers, and Cain uses his memorable writer’s voice to bring that character to life. I guess something stemming from the writing itself is inevitably lost when a great book is translated to film. I mean, just imagine it going the other way: how could someone translate great cinematography or excellent performances into prose?

Abstract aesthetic thoughts aside, The Postman Always Rings Twice is a solid film that you should definitely check out.

Gilda (1946)

Gilda Poster

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.

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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.

Rita Hayworth

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.