Gilda (1946) dir. Charles Vidor
Starring: Glenn Ford, Rita Hayworth, George MacCready
By Alan Bacchus
The Hollywood "Production Code", the 38-year filter for all things ‘inappropriate’ in Hollywood cinema, was in effect during the making of Gilda – Charles Vidor’s classic sexually-charged nourish melodrama, which serves as a great example of how films of the era both benefited from and were hindered by these restraints.
Vidor and his writers establish a Casablanca-type insular world in Gilda. It’s Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Glenn Ford plays Johnnie Farrell, a professional gambler hired by businessman Ballin Munson (George MacCready, the bombastic General in Paths of Glory) to use his skills to manage his casino. Johnnie makes good with his job commanding the reigns with the same confidence as Rick Blaine in Casablanca.
But when Munson comes back from a business trip with a new wife, it’s a red flag for Johnnie. And when he first catches sight of the seductress mantrap Munson's found, he can only see danger. The luscious Rita Hayworth plays Gilda with mouthwatering allure. Immediately we sense a connection between her and Johnnie. Do they know each other? Perhaps not, but Johnnie knows a dame in this business is never good. As Johnnie tries to curb Gilda’s flirtations, they become inexorably drawn to each other. But a love triangle with big money at stake can only result in disaster.
In this "Production Code" era, a distinct style of metaphorical filmmaking resulted from the inability of filmmakers to show or tell us some of the more immoral aspects of their films overtly. Many films benefited from this restraint – a film like The Big Sleep, in which much of the lewd and subversive elements were put deep into the background and subtext of the story.
Few, if any, films compare to the sexual tension Charles Vidor manages to ring out from Johnnie’s relationship with Gilda. For much of the film they hate each other's guts, often spelling it out clearly with lines like, “I hated her so I couldn't get her out of my mind for a minute,” or “I hate you so much I think I'm going to die from it." Yet Vidor’s framing of Hayworth and Ford and the close-ups he lingers on suggest more. Their back story is only hinted at and never fully explained. I still don’t know for certain whether Johnnie and Gilda had a relationship prior to meeting at the Casino, and if so, where did it start and what caused its demise?
It's part of the big tease Vidor holds on us for two-thirds of the picture until finally the two tempestuous ex-lovers break the barrier and kiss. This scene, which occurs in Gilda’s bedroom on the evening of the Carnival celebration, is dripping with sexual tension. Hayworth closes in on Ford so slowly we can feel the carnal urges of his character trying not to do what his libido is telling him to. Johnnie eventually does succumb to Gilda’s advances, at which point a sweaty sex scene would be in order. Of course, we don’t ever see it. Instead, the film jumps forward to a marriage between the two.
A marriage between these characters, under the "Production Code", perhaps wouldn’t have been allowed. After all, the two heroes of the film kissing and (likely) going to bed together without getting married was a no-no. And so, in the final act, the film plays out a scattered plot divergence of this marriage between Gilda and Johnnie. Unfortunately, it’s a dreadful finale to an otherwise pitch-perfect picture.
I can forgive this unhealthy digression in the film because of the 90 minutes of perfection the film achieves before it. Vidor’s keen cinematic eye and Rudolph Mate’s stylish cinematography embellishes all the texture established by the performances. In the history of cinema, few leading ladies have been lit better than Mate’s work on Rita Hayworth. It’s the finest example of lighting used to express the mood and desires of a character. Hayworth’s opening shot, of course, is famous. As Johnnie is introduced to Gilda, we see her pop up into frame in a soft close-up flopping her hair back with a cool flirtatious attitude. But watch Hayworth's movement throughout her scenes, as a strong backlight always seems to follow her (and only her) wherever she goes. At all times she’s glowing like a beacon or a siren tempting us over to her dark side of carnality.
With today's eyes, perhaps it's a sexist view of women as the object of desire with an ability to turn men into mouthwatering dogs at the mercy of their sexuality. Maybe not much has changed, but no film has done it better than Gilda.