By James Churchill.
Nobody forgets the first time they experienced Hayworth’s sudden emergence from the bottom of the frame in Gilda. The quick snap of the head that sends her hair in orbit, the calculated smirk, and the snarky, one-word response that lets us know right away who she cares most about… “Me?” The speed of the motion is crucial. It’s fast—too fast. It lingers in the memory, and yet after seeing it, the viewer is immediately struck with the feeling that it must be seen again. It’s like the magic trick that could surely be exposed if only the magician would do it once more: every time you think you’re on the brink of discovery, it slips away again.
The orchestration of this shot is the ultimate cinematic sleight of hand, a gesture so exciting and yet so unsatisfying that it transcends its sensational reputation and offers a profound commentary on the lives of the three points of the film’s love triangle: Johnny (Glenn Ford), Gilda (Rita Hayworth), and Ballin (George Macready). The teasing nature of that act perfectly encapsulates their perpetual dissatisfaction and the transience of their pleasure. No other film of the period (and few films, period) so meticulously explores the dark underbelly of sexual desire, the perverse manner in which the exploitation of others for personal pleasure can come to be advertised under the banner of love.
In this respect, Vidor’s film anticipates the work of Roman Polanski, and the underrated Bitter Moon in particular. In that film the two main characters, driven by an insatiable lust and an ever-increasing disregard for the other’s humanity, lock themselves into a marriage that becomes a psychological prison. As the story of Gilda unfolds, it begins to seem like Johnny and Gilda’s prior relationship may have taken a similar trajectory. But the narrative is complicated by a third sexual partner: the older, wiser, and more intimidating Ballin Mundson.
Running from a painful past, Johnny ends up at a Buenos Aires casino owned by Ballin. Impressing the boss with some generic ‘40s tough guy antics, he soon finds himself employed as an assistant (and gigolo). But the arrival of Gilda, Ballin’s new wife, threatens to throw the men’s relationship into disarray. It may seem improbable that former lovers Johnny and Gilda just happen to bump into each other in South America, but such absurdity is consistent with the tone of the film. In the noir universe, cruel determinism reigns supreme, and characters find themselves in situations that are as outlandish as they are terrible. Fate governs their misfortune and shatters the laws of probability. Their misery hurts all the more because it’s so dreadfully unfair.
Gilda is, as countless critics and film fans have pointed out, driven by the psychosexual dynamic of the three characters’ relationship, which spirals down in tighter and tighter circles until it arrives at the gates of Noir Hell. Vidor and veteran cinematographer Rudolph Maté gleefully depict this descent with precise camera movement, intricate choreography, and garish lighting. For the most part, the performances effectively reflect this pessimism, but as Johnny, Glenn Ford affects a tough guy persona that doesn’t yet seem natural to him. In later films like The Big Heat and 3:10 to Yuma, his badassery seems effortless, but here, he seems to be trying too hard to not give a damn (something that could never be said of contemporaries like Bogart or Mitchum). Hayworth and Macready do more sophisticated, layered work, and are far more convincing.
If the film’s ultimate emergence from the darkness seems too swift (or, to be more frank, dreadfully clumsy), this shift should be understood as a result of the influence of the Hollywood studio system. Gilda has an ending so tacked-on, so inconceivable in its optimism, that the coda of Hitchcock’s Suspicion seems organic by comparison. Such is the penance that one pays in postwar Hollywood for indulging in the darkness. You can have your hundred minutes of fun, but atone for your sins in the last ten.
The new Criterion Blu-ray release offers great sound and image quality and some valuable special features. Discussions with Martin Scorsese, perhaps the most knowledgeable film scholar alive, and Baz Luhrmann are insightful. Luhrmann’s own films, with their highly stylized depictions of glamorous worlds and their disdain for all things subtle, echo the ‘40s melodramas like Gilda, which gives him an interesting perspective on the film and on contemporary Hollywood’s unfortunate relationship with realism.
Richard Schickel’s dry commentary track is a bit of a disappointment, offering only a few noteworthy comments amidst a stream of obvious remarks. And a shallow documentary short on Hayworth’s career seems slapped on as an afterthought, but a discussion with Eddie Muller on sexual undercurrents in postwar Hollywood films is delightful. Sheila O’Malley’s essay for the Blu-ray booklet is also intriguing, and offers some good thoughts on the critical neglect of Charles Vidor in auteur studies (a point that Schickel also touches on, in one of the commentary track’s better moments). Overall, it’s a strong, if uneven, package that honors a strong, if uneven, film.
James Churchill is a graduate from Abilene Christian University.
Gilda was released on blu-ray by The Criterion Collection.