Weekend Film Recommendation: Gilda

Rita Hayworth seduced the world with Gilda, which also features terrific cinematography by Rudolph Maté and a fine co-leading performance by Glenn Ford

gilda-black-dress-useRita Hayworth was a big singing and dancing star of musicals in the early 1940s, but the film that made her an international sex bomb (literally) wasn’t released until 1946. It’s this week’s film recommendation: Gilda.

The plot, which echoes Casablanca in a number of respects, concerns a love triangle in a faraway land, in this case, Argentina. Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is a cocky grifter who is flat on his uppers. He is saved from a mugging by a mysterious and rather menacing casino owner named Ballin Mundson (George Macready) whom he subsequently manages to talk into hiring him as an aide-de-camp. All is well for a time, though Johnny suspects that the casino is only a front for Mundson’s other, more shady, business. But before you can say cherchez la femme, their relationship changes for the worse when Mundson marries a sizzling beauty named Gilda (Hayworth), with whom Johnny has an unhappy history. Thus commences a love-hate-love relationship in which Johnny and Gilda torment each other while Ballin begins to suspect the truth about their former relationship. Meanwhile, both the police and Ballin’s criminal associates are closing in on his other lucrative but illegal line of work.

This is a star vehicle for Hayworth from the famous moment she first appears on screen with a sensual toss of her hair. She gets to sing and dance as well as act, most legendarily in her striptease style number “Put the Blame on Mame”. Countless American men (and no doubt some women) were sexually enthralled with her forever after.

I know too much about Hayworth to have such an uncomplicated reaction. I feel sorry for Margarita Cansino, the pudgy Hispanic girl and incest victim whom Hollywood turned — at the cost to her of physical and emotional pain — into Rita Hayworth. She never got to be who she really was and virtually every man in her life, starting with her father, exploited her. It’s a credit to her strength that despite understandable, significant emotional troubles she managed to always pull things together on screen throughout the 1940s and be a terrific movie star. Gilda is generally considered her finest hour, and with good reason.

Even though it’s Hayworth’s film, two other aspects of it are extremely compelling. The first is Glenn Ford. He’s kinetic on screen, a man always appraising every angle in search of some advantage. He also manages, despite not having classically handsome Hollywood-type features, to convey enough sexual attractiveness that Hayworth’s desire for him is entirely believable.

The other thing I adore about this movie is Rudolph Maté’s camerawork, which is completely arresting beginning with the opening, rising shot of those big rolling dice. I have praised him before for his work on Vampyr, but the tools of cinematography came a long way technically since that early film. And boy, does Maté take advantage. Perfect use of light and shadow, deep focus shots, close-ups at critical moments, it’s all here in the hands of a master. And thank you again UCLA Preservation team for this crystal clear, gorgeous restoration of the print.

The performances and the cinematography help make up for an uneven script, which may simply have had too many cooks. There are some lines to die for, and some sharp dialogue, but the plot structure of the last third is unnecessarily clunky in some respects and too pat in others. Still, Gilda is a very fine film noir that completely holds up almost 70 years later.

p.s. The conventional take on Bosley Crowther’s career as a NYT film reviewer is that he lost touch with modern tastes in the late 1960s (His repeated trashing of Bonnie and Clyde being the death-knell) after a long and distinguished career. But if you read his obtuse, inept review of Gilda twenty years earlier, you will see that he never really knew what he was talking about.

p.p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

11 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Gilda”

  1. Gilda, eh? Taking a break from obscurity this week, I see. Well-deserved shout-out to Maté and thanks for linking to the old review, especially since Crowther’s sense of the film is similar to my memories of it (seen once only, decades ago). Sorry.

    Crowther also reviewed Vacation From Marriage in the same piece (a paragraph seems to be missing): that’s a nice little movie with a good cast in the British WWII stiff-upper-lip genre, about as far from Gilda as one can get.

    1. Hi karl. I am idiosyncratic in my choices and for some reason Gilda begins a run of better known films before we return to lesser known fare in late January.

  2. Rita Hayworth was a year older than my mother. She (Hayworth, not my mother) was the first older woman I had the hots for.

    And Gilda was her best.

    Good choice, Keith.

  3. Obtuse? Inept? I think Crowther says it best when he describes himself early in the review as “utterly baffled.” Would that he had stopped at that point instead of becoming a standard bearer for ignorance.

    1. I saw an interview with Keith Baxter in which he described how Crowther almost personally killed Chimes of Midnight in the US with his brutal review.

    2. A very small defense of Bosley Crowther’s review: Anyone who doesn’t like Rita Hayworth as Gilda, won’t like this movie because she is the whole movie. You can talk about the camerawork, the lighting and the direction. You can even say nice things about Glenn Ford’s acting. But, ultimately, it isn’t just Rita Hayworth’s movie. She is the movie. Her performance is so great that it obscures truly dreadful writing.

      The plot is beyond convoluted. There are gaping holes everywhere you turn. The motivations of the principal characters are never explained even though it’s obviously necessary and that failure infects every aspect of the film. The back story with the toilet attendant isn’t explained either, even though he turns out to be a key player in the resolution of all of the conflicts in the film. Nothing about the plot and nothing about what the characters do makes sense. This is a film that treats the concept of a plot as secondary to stylish directing and brooding acting. Even the Marx Brothers movies had better developed plots.

      There has been an effort to explain the bizarre, irrational relationship between Mundson and Farrell by saying that Gilda is really a gay themed movie that had to stay in the closet. But, if you think it through, while that might fill in a few of the gaps, it also opens up an immense number of far larger plot holes. If you don’t like the gay thing, then you can say that the meeting between Mundson and Farrell is the maguffin; the unexplained thing that sets the movie going in a particular direction—you accept it as necessary and then move on to the heart of the movie. But this film has so many macguffins that it drifts very close to being just a series of vaguely connected macguffins interspersed between equally disconnected displays of Rita Hayworth.

      My own view is that not only was Rita Hayworth probably the most sexually appealing woman on the planet, maybe in the history of the planet, she was also a dammed good actress. Her performance really was a masterpiece. Being sexy was obviously a necessary ingredient but sex appeal alone would not have been sufficient to make the part of Gilda the best developed and most memorable character in this film (and, indeed, one of the most memorable characters in the entire history of film).

      So, while I couldn’t disagree more about Rita Hayworth’s performance, Crowther was right about the film overall. The writing was awful. Worse than awful. But I would also say that the direction wasn’t much better. I don’t think it’s enough to be magnificently artistic and noirish or technically a great director—–one of the most important functions of the director is to make the story work. Even a noir film is basically telling a story and this story was incoherent even by film noir standards. And I think that without Hayworth’s amazing performance, Crowther’s review would have been exactly on the mark and Gilda would be a forgotten, second rate film instead of a classic.

      1. A well-needed Crowther rescue.

        “A series of vaguely connected macguffins interspersed between equally disconnected displays of Rita Hayworth” sounds like a multimedia installation. If done right it might be more interesting than the movie.

  4. After reading Crowther’s review at Keith’s prompting, I went on to poke around in the NYT archive for some of his other pieces. What struck me more than anything else was the clunkiness of his prose, quite apart from the aptness or otherwise of his judgments. But speaking of the latter, his gushing praise for Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady” seems positively deranged.

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