Hate can be a very exciting emotion. Very exciting. Haven’t you noticed that?

I guess one of the defining characteristics of film noir is its subversive nature. It tends to take traditional scenarios and situations and casts its dark and cynical shadows over them, carrying the audience along on a journey into a murky and unfamiliar world. This subversion can apply to the legal system, social matters, or affairs of the heart. Gilda (1946) concentrates on the latter category, spinning its tale of three people locked into a romantic triangle, unable to decide if they love or hate each other and apparently unaware of the distinction between these powerful and conflicting emotions.

The story begins in Argentina at some unspecified point towards the end of WWII. But there’s a timeless, otherworldly quality to it all – the end of the war and the ensuing celebrations are mentioned in a throwaway fashion that’s surely meant to emphasize the detachment of the lead characters from the real world and the more mundane concerns of most people. These people seem to exist and operate within their own self-contained universe, a glamorous yet nightmarish demi-monde, where the bigger picture of world-changing events are relevant only as a kind of Hitchcockian MacGuffin. The opening shot of the movie introduces Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford), a down on his luck grifter rolling dice on the waterfront and looking for easy marks. His strategy is a high risk one, not just because he’s a gambler but because his loaded dice are sure to attract the attention of disgruntled suckers sooner or later. When the inevitable happens, and Johnny finds himself the victim of a shakedown on a dark and forbidding wharf, his hide is saved by the intervention of a suave gentleman with a handy sword stick. This is Ballin Mundson (George Macready), a casino owner with an interest in shadier and even more profitable ventures. Johnny is nothing if not an opportunist and soon talks himself into employment, and a position of trust, with Ballin. For a time this mutually beneficial arrangement works and everything is sailing along smoothly on calm waters, until a woman appears and brews up a storm. Gilda (Rita Hayworth) is a sexual powerhouse, a woman whose passionate nature and provocative insolence seems to radiate from within. Her sudden and dramatic appearance as Ballin’s wife, after a whirlwind courtship, throws Johnny for a loop and irreversibly alters the dynamic of the relationship between the two men. Gilda’s arrival on the scene has an immediate and profound effect on Johnny – their introduction is a charged affair, and the confusion that Johnny’s barely able to disguise is shared by the audience. The rippling undercurrent of hostility gives rise to all sorts of questions about these people. I’m not giving away much here when I point out that it’s soon revealed that Gilda and Johnny were once lovers, before he walked out on her. And there we have our triangle: a cagey, duplicitous affair where the three protagonists circle each other warily and seem bent on mutual destruction. While it all develops nicely, I’ve always thought that the ending is weak – a little too abrupt and not all that convincing.

In my opinion, the reason Gilda is classified as a film noir is down to the theme more than the look. Cameraman Rudolph Maté does create some characteristically noir images – the waterfront opening, some of the nighttime casino scenes, and the way Ballin seems to blend and merge with the shadows – but much of the movie features bright, flat lighting. The edgy, darker tone stems largely from the setting and plot twists. A casino has a built-in sense of fatalism to it anyway, a place where fortune quite literally depends on the turn of a card or a throw of the dice. When this is combined with the South American setting, and the allusions to ex-Nazis involved in political and economic intrigue, it conjures up that sense of exotic danger that was very much in fashion in the mid to late 40s. Of course all this really only amounts to Casablanca style escapism; the key element that tips it over into the world of noir is the sadomasochistic relationship at the centre of the tale. The film is essentially a love story, but there’s a vicious, unpleasant side to the romance. Everything revolves around the title character, as she punishes both Johnny and Ballin, but in so doing she incurs arguably greater punishment at their hands in return.

The unquestionable star of the show is Rita Hayworth, the role becoming the one with which she would remain most closely identified for the rest of her life. Hayworth herself acknowledged this and it seems she had mixed feelings about it – her frank admission that the men in her life went to bed with Gilda and woke up with her is very telling. Whatever the personal legacy may have been, Hayworth certainly breathed life into what, in other hands, could have been a cardboard cutout character. She was excellent at getting across the contrast between the vivacious bravado that characterized Gilda’s public facade and the uncertainty and self-loathing she felt in more private moments. Her big scene, the one that is endlessly referenced in books and retrospectives, where she tries to provoke a reaction from Johnny with a knowing parody of a public striptease is justly famous. However, it also tends to overshadow the good work she did all through the movie.

While Rita Hayworth is the one most people will remember from the movie, Gilda worked wonders for the career of another of its stars. Glenn Ford, like a number of other actors, had seen service during the war, and Gilda was the film that gave him the boost he needed and raised his profile. Wartime experiences affected a lot of performers, it gave them a different air, a toughness and a touch of weariness too. Ford went on to work in some pretty good noir pictures, Lang’s The Big Heat being the best of them, and he did seem to belong in that world. As he did in his numerous western roles, Ford brought a kind of dissatisfaction with himself to his noir parts. Johnny Farrell has a veneer of cockiness and self-assurance to him, but Ford could always invest his characters with a nervy, slightly uncomfortable quality too. These may be little things yet they add up and make characters more believable and realistic. Although both Johnny and Gilda are flawed individuals, they’re not villainous. But a movie like this needs a bogeyman, and George Macready was a fine choice for the role of Ballin. Right from the beginning there’s a sinister air about him, and Macready’s innate charm and culture accentuates that. The repressed manner and wonderfully distinctive voice add to his calm menace – you honestly get the feeling that crossing this man would be an extremely foolish move. Of the supporting cast, I find Steven Geray the most memorable. This washroom attendant whose contempt for just about everyone, apart from Gilda, sees him making one flip comment after another seems to be given a lot of slack. I especially like the way we never find out exactly what leverage he has – the one time he’s about to reveal it he’s interrupted, and we’re left wondering.

I actually drafted this piece back in July, after I’d seen it one balmy Saturday night in an outdoor cinema in Athens – always a great way to enjoy a classic movie. However, I realized my holidays were fast approaching and so I decided to hold off publishing it. I though I might want to go back and tweak it some, but I’ve decided to leave it just as I’d written it a few days after watching the film. I’ve seen Gilda many times over the years and always enjoyed its dark romance. I wouldn’t say it’s one of those movies that reveals too many new things on repeated viewings yet it’s not the kind that grows stale either. It’s earned its classic status, and it’s well worth visiting or revisiting.

25 thoughts on “Gilda

  1. And he’s back – with a classic! One of my favourite movies – I agree that its atmosphere is perhaps more exotic than Noir (one could compare its essential triangle with the one of THE BIG CLOCK, with Macready playing a similar role, though there the movie is clearly all noir). Allegedly the film was mucked around with quite a bit in the cutting room (hence the comparatively brief running time) though actually I think it just adds to the spice of the narrative in lots of ways (well, not if you think coherence is very important I suppose but I like it quite a lot when it’s all torrid and suppressed emotions).


        • Yeah, Ford’s career petered out far too quickly when he still had lots to offer. I think I heard his private life was a tad messy but I’m not well versed on the details.


          • His son Peter worked with him on an autobiography that doesn’t shirk from detailing his many, many infidelities though he appears to have been a fairly charismatic and otherwise decent person too … I will say though that, considering how early Ford’s career started, he did have a pretty amazing run for 20 years or so (with a lot of similar peaks to his mate William Holden in fact) – and he was still great as Pa Kent in the original Superman movie


            • Yes, I did hear something when the book came out a while back. Thanks for clarifying that.

              Holden and Ford started out around the same time and there are some parallels in the shape of their careers. I just think Ford was still doing good work in the 60s at the time the roles were becoming scarcer.


  2. Great to see you back, Colin. And with a film review of a noir classic, to boot. Doesn’t get any better than that. Well done.

    p.s., love that specific poster you used for the movie, too.


    • Yes, it’s a great introduction to the character, isn’t it? That shot and gesture almost sum up the kind of character she is, highlighting her spirit and provocative nature.


        • Thanks. I need to step back and take a break from this thing every so often. I always find a spell away refreshes me and keeps the enthusiasm from flagging too much.
          I do pop in and have a look round your place fairly regularly, even if I don’t always leave comments I enjoy browsing round to see what others think.


  3. I have always considered “Gilda” to be a more character-driven story than most film-noir. The emotional machinations of the main characters hold interest even when the story itself faulters slightly towards its conclusion.

    “Gilda” was the only one of the four Hayworth/Ford efforts that attracted both critical and public approval, and its popularity remains a fitting tribute to these fine actors.

    Welcome back, Colin.


    • Hi Rod. The plot has a few rough patches and the ending feels rushed and slightly cobbled together, but the characterization does shore things up and carries the day.
      And yes, Gilda is easily the best of the movies Ford and Hayworth made together.


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  5. Hello there Colin. I am new to Gilda and thank you for a rather thorough introduction. New info on Glenn. Found you from Kristina, (my main fellah is Ward Bond tied up of course with his best friends, Duke and Pappy Ford which has gotten me into the Stock company of Pappy’s and later Duke’s. Found Kristina when she wrote the best piece on Ward I have ever read. I added some to it, and we continue to stay in touch. I will check out your place as soon as I get a break. Seems as if you may be a “find” for some of my research…..yep writing two books, LOL! I will contact you from your site if I find things I can use to see if I can get permission to use them with proper credit due, of course. Thanks again for a pleasant and interesting read, Keith Payne (KP)


  6. Welcome back, Colin! Another great piece on a fun film, which I first saw in a college film class yonks ago.

    I like what you say about Glenn Ford’s ability to portray a “nervy, slightly uncomfortable quality.” At times he comes across as all smooth confidence (as in THE SHEEPMAN), but in many other roles he definitely carries an edge. Perhaps that is partly why he never became as big a star as some of his contemporaries; I don’t think it was due to any lack of talent.

    And of course what can one say about the luminous Ms. Hayworth. Her famous entrance, complete with hair flip-up, left a lasting impression of sultry, uncontrollable femme fatale beauty.


    • Hi there Jeff.
      I think Ford was a big enough draw at his peak, but his popularity or perceived popularity fell away sooner than it ought to have. I really like his edgy quality – it marks out some of his best roles in my opinion.


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  8. Not my fav Ford film but worth the time investment to watch. Nice review. I saw Ford back in the 70’s when he was here filming the first SUPERMAN film.


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