by Jason Haas

Gilda is a strange movie, and an unlikely classic. Artistically, it is no failure, but it is also far from an unqualified success. It is often mentioned in the company of the most famous film noir pictures, but it manages only to borrow from the genre without having many of the classic elements of noir. Instead, the movie turns on the personality and star-power mega-wattage of Rita Hayworth. Columbia boss Harry Cohn developed the film as a vehicle for this starlet on the rise, and few if any of her other films contributed so notoriously to her fame. While some of the star-vehicle concessions should just have turned Gilda into a passably entertaining film that time forgot, Hayworth does something rare – she earns the attention the camera gives her.

One of my film professors in college said, “film noir is just men whining about the horrible things that women have done to them.” Gilda isn’t strictly a noir, but it certainly is about a man whining about a woman. Adapted from a pulp novel, there are plenty of noir-ish cues in the film – criminal activity, the voice over narration, and the looming post-war tension of a world where the men don’t trust themselves or each other because the war made killers out of so many of them–if someone has a German accent and a scar, that mistrust goes double.

It’s easy to see how Gilda would be mistaken for a noir in its early moments. A haggard looking Johnny Farrell is hustling American sailors down by the docks on his “first night in the Argentine,” as he tells us in hardened, staccato tones. He’s almost immediately (and comically) held up by a street tough … and then rescued by a German with a sword cane? Ballin Mundson is a strange character to show up in a film noir – Snidely Whiplash with a swastika armband almost certainly somewhere in his past. Noir is a deeply American genre and is an inward looking phenomenon questioning who the men of America are after World War II, but Mundson is an almost satirically strange expression of a different tension – a fear of the Nazis seeking political asylum in Argentina. Johnny moving up through the ranks in an illegal casino is a perfectly noir plotline, but Johnny inheriting a tungsten monopoly is completely weird. The character’s anxiety about being in over his head with the monopoly seems to mirror an anxiety that he is clearly out of his genre. The film’s odd shift beyond a typical noir plotline may be because not all pulp novels are crime novels, and Gilda the novel sought out its tawdriness in whatever unsavory and melodramatic arenas it could.

Gilda’s inability to maintain its noir status is only partially attributable to wacky International intrigue. A bigger problem is its split identification: even as Johnny Farrell is telling us about the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad situation that a woman has landed him in, the film is clearly and intractably in love with Hayworth’s Gilda. As a result, the film takes on elements of the “women’s picture” genre of the 1930s and hints of the domestic melodrama that will become popular in the 1950s. It is incredibly melodramatic in both direction and performance and is so sympathetic to Rita Hayworth’s Gilda that her musical theme, “Put the Blame on Mame,” makes a fantastic mockery of the masculine or even societal desire to put the blame for all your problems on the woman. When Farrell tries to cage Gilda for her supposed infidelities, you can’t help but feel for this poor woman. Johnny may be telling us his story, but he’s lost much of our sympathy as an audience. This is to say nothing of the fact that when an audience has to pick between Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth, they’re going to pick Rita Hayworth every time (no disrespect intended towards Ford).

Where does that land this Franken-movie then, stitched together from two seemingly opposed genres? Restroom attendant and philosopher Uncle Pio almost makes a meta-commentary about the film when he continually asks Johnny to make up his mind: is he a peasant or a gentleman? The result is a movie that sympathizes with both. Finally, Gilda is about how hard people are on each other, especially when they’re young and just learning to negotiate the rocky waters of desire. And the characters of Johnny and Gilda are most certainly young.

It may be somewhat difficult to tell just how young these characters are emotionally, since Glenn Ford was 30 when this was made, and Hayworth was 28. She was also pregnant throughout the production with her daughter by Orson Welles (Columbia rushed the film into and through production so that they could capitalize on the publicity from her new baby). While these actors weren’t exactly fresh-faced ingénues, they behave as children and are treated as children by the characters around them. Mundson calls Gilda, “a beautiful, greedy child,” and the description fits her, at least at the start of the film. The games Gilda plays to get Johnny’s attention are so childish that they’re almost adorable, and when Johnny’s in charge of the casino, he’s obviously out of his depth – Ford’s anxiety is palpable the entire time he’s running things, and the look on his face when he finally hands all of illegal doings over to the police department is pure relief. Both Gilda and Johnny tell Mundson that they’re “no past and all future,” indicating their desire to escape their pasts, but it’s also true. These are children in the wrong place at the wrong time. When the Columbia advertisements for the film were right in declaring, “There’s never been a woman like Gilda!” because Gilda is hardly a woman – she’s a girl. For goodness’ sake, when she and Farrell are making up in the end, she says, “Isn’t it wonderful? Nobody has to apologize, because we were both stinkers, weren’t we? Isn’t it wonderful?” Stinkers!?

Rita Hayworth, however, is a woman, and there was perhaps never a woman like Rita. Her incandescence in this film is what makes it legendary. This role sealed her reputation as “The Great American Love Goddess,” proving she could play the erotic temptress as well as the fresh-faced dancing ingénue of her earlier work for Columbia. The first atomic bomb dropped on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands was named “Gilda”and had Hayworth’s picture taped to it. Quite fitting, because Gilda is certainly a white-hot bombshell.

USA, 1946. 110 min. Columbia. Cast: Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford, George Macready, Joseph Calleia, Steve Geray. Music: Doris Fisher and Allan Roberts; Cinematography: Rudolph Mate; Editing: Charles Nelson; Art Direction: Stephen Goosson, Van Nest Polglase; Produced by: Virginia Van Upp; Written by: Jo Eisinger, E.A. Ellington, Ben Hecht; Directed by: Charles Vidor.

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