Dir: Charles Vidor
Cert: PG • US: 106 min • Columbia Tristar • DVD
It’s often near impossible to pinpoint why a film goes beyond mere success and makes its ascension to the lofty epithet of ‘Classic’. Gilda, with its strong central performances, sparky dialogue and chic film noir production values, is not only a classic of its genre but it gave Rita Hayworth her defining role and became director Charles Vidor’s most memorable work.
The movie inventively begins with an opening shot that rises up out of the ground to be met by a large pair of dice that come to rest in the foreground. Crammed in between packing crates, faces loom out of the shadows as a handsome rogue sets into motion a second pair of dice which, predictably, land in his favour. Johnny (Glenn Ford), sensing he’s stretched his luck to its limits, gathers his winnings and slips back into the shadows, but it seems his luck has run out as he is intercepted by one sore loser waving a gun. He isn’t about to let Johnny leave with his spoils.
Enter Ballin Mundson (George Macready), dressed finely in black tie and sporting a cane. This cane has a blade concealed in it’s tip with which he rescues Johnny from his assailant – it is a significant moment. Mundson uses this chance meeting to bait the dice shark into trying his luck at a real, albeit an illegal, casino; a casino which he fails to disclose he owns. It is also significant that these two men meet at the docks, in the dead of night. It is a fact that shouldn’t go ignored.
Film noir tends to hint at truths but never exposes them; its world is shrouded in shadow and therefore by its very nature implicit rather than explicit. It’s worth noting that the genre is heavy on codes & symbolism and men carrying canes were understood to be, as defined by this code, homosexual.
Mundson forms a working partnership with Johnny on the proviso that there is no woman in the frame, since ‘gambling and women don’t mix’. Even a two-bit tarot reading charlatan can see what’s on these cards, and when Ballin comes back from a business trip and announces he has got married Johnny looks defeated without knowing that the battle is yet to come.
Rita Hayworth’s Gilda unequivocally deserves to be the stuff of legend. There isn’t a moment when she is onscreen that you don’t want to watch her. She’s sassy, sexy and delivers her lines with wit and pointed accuracy. It’s no wonder that the American Air-force named one of the two atomic bombs they dropped on Bikini Atoll after this character. Introducing her Ballin asks, “Gilda, are you decent?”and from the shadows she responds, “Me?” moving slowly from silhouette into the sparkling light, as she breathes, “Sure.. I’m decent.” We already know she’s anything but.
What follows is some of the most entertaining and painful sparring between characters ever set to film. Some of the action is vicious and brutal, but as Ballin points out: “Hate can be an exciting emotion. There is a heat in it that you can feel”. But the heat threatens to destroy them all.
Gilda is considered to be one of the all time great femme fatales; displaying all the sexual power, allure and danger characteristic of those who wear the mantle, but what sets her apart from her predecessors is that Gilda doesn’t remain the enigmatic, almost supernatural, archetype. In fact, as the film progresses she becomes less enigmatic as she is stripped back and laid bare, a process which manifests itself metaphorically and literally in a breathtaking performance of, ‘Blame it on Mame’. Hayworth delivers the scene with an incredible amount of vulnerability yet manages to underscore it with an awareness of the power that the act possesses.
Gilda might possibly be the first postmodern film noir. It’s beautifully shot and self-consciously understands that at the core of its genre is a tension that is inherent in it’s diametric dynamics. Gilda is set in a world where the underbelly meets high society; where dark meets light, literally and metaphorically. It’s no accident that the city outside is always in a state of perpetual night, whilst the interiors dazzle with their mirrored walls, crystal glass and dresses that twinkle like falling glitter. Cinematographer Rudolph Maté uses extreme chiaroscuro throughout to emphasize the elements of conflict; at one point he manages to frame Gilda in silhouette with just a spark of light dancing in her eyes.
Between 1934-1968 the Hays Production Code was enforced, which meant all US films were screened for immoral material forcing film makers to use codes of their own. A lot of the film’s energy may come out of Gilda and Johnny’s verbal and physical spats, but the lingering moments of eye contact and veiled dialogue between Johnny and Ballin are equally as exciting and engaging. It’s possibly the most intriguing love triangle committed to celluloid. As Uncle Pio says when Gilda enters the mêlée, “this will be interesting to watch…”.