Movies We Like
The more one understands about their culture the easier it is to recognize the arts and entertainment of their time. I had always enjoyed watching Gilda for reasons that couldn't exactly be pinpointed until now. There was the impression that it wasn't just her sultry and thrill-seeking ways, or her liberation. It was her libido, actually, and the unapologetic way that the principles behind the production code in movies were instigated. And with style that was most-impressive and done by the likes of Jean Louis, just as any other big budget wonder. It's as if post-Depression a few filmmakers were asking themselves an important question: “Why keep pretending the dark edges of life don't exist?” In asking, it is as though life was breathed into this thought and the result was Film Noir.
This isn't to say that the majority of films in that era were not of great wit and integrity. Surely the way that these restrictions were handled by the likes of Frank Capra, George Cukor, and Leo McCarey was masterful and deserving of adoration. The same can be said of the glitz of Busby Berkeley, providing a much-needed solace for a body of people who were in despair. Still, there are many things about Vidor's esteemed classic that place it far ahead of the others in terms of sophistication. This is due to how human and flawed the characters are and the fact that it's a splendid battle of the sexes. For anyone with experience or imagination in the matter, I assure you that it surpasses even some contemporary works.
The protagonist of the film is Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford), a handsome man who is stout in personality and experienced in self-promotion. As a man who “makes his own luck,” Buenos Aires seems to be an ideal playground for shadowy behavior and pastimes. Johnny isn't given much of an opportunity to find out, as his loaded dice soon land him a new friend: Ballin Mundson (George Macready), a no-nonsense owner and operator of an exclusive gambling establishment. Mundson realizes, after Johnny's proposition, that it would be lucrative to have a man like Johnny working for him at the tables—or at the very least keeping an eye out for fellows with a similar “skill.”
The two men have an almost father-son bond, mostly fueled by Mundson—who sees himself in Johnny, being a man of vice who creates concessions in his own life at the slight misfortune of others. As it turns out, Mundson has affairs that are far more important and profitable than gambling. In fact, they're causing him a lot of undue attention and strife, which he's used to navigating. The same goes for Johnny. The two also agree on another issue that is stretched to vitality: gambling and women don't mix, so don't get involved. With the assurance that Johnny won't let his logic be strewed by the folly of the female, Mundson leaves him in charge while he settles some affairs abroad. To Johnny's dismay, Mundson returns from the trip as a married man. To his horror, his sexpot of a wife is his ex, Gilda (Rita Hayworth).
The film abruptly shifts from this slick story of two men navigating the underworld in tuxedos to the happenings of a red-head who is as thorny as a rose. Hayworth's breathtaking beauty is paraded so drastically that it comes off as ultra-erotic at times. There's a scene were she's walking around her bedroom in a white chemise nightgown and she steps to a lamp, exposing every curve and a lot more underneath. I can only imagine what it must have been like to see that on the big screen all over the world. Anyhow, naturally Johnny and Gilda are embittered and at first their disdain for each other puzzles and morbidly amuses Mundson. It becomes established that Gilda is a golddigger and interested in climbing a social ladder using her womanly charms. She does it with such style that you can't be angry. You can only pity Johnny as he is forced to keep her protected and amused (she's now Mundson's property) while watching her blatantly disregard his feelings and her honor.
A series of events unfold that tests the strengths and inner-discipline of everyone involved until, finally, the Noir-like elements return to present a dynamic ending that I personally didn't see as all that happy. It's hopeful, but for the characters and the rest of the realism in the film, you wonder what will become of them, all the while being stunned that you could be so intrinsically involved.
I have a tough time labeling Gilda as a noir and I sort of refuse to. Noir has a formula and a style that the film simply does not. Not entirely. The motif is often the MacGuffin, a plot twist that has no true explanation but everyone seems entangled in; just a shadowy mystery that swallows lives as it unfolds. In Gilda, the motif is a reoccurring song that is playing on the radio when we first see her and sung by the character often. The meaning makes this more a tale of attraction than crime.
This lack is not a flaw, but rather an instrument with which the viewer can set it apart from the rest of the genre—as most will argue it's a noir. With The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity, for example, the romantic elements take the burner on the very back of the stove. In Gilda, it's the most important thing cooking. In being so, it reveals how just as much tension and macabre can be in romance as with a thriller. Sure, there is violence and cartels and an evasive sense of justice in all regards, but they are so minuscule that you hardly notice them. They are simply elements for the characters to sift through their fingers. The thing you retain is Gilda; the most consuming, unattainable and haunting of all the classic sirens.