WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: Crooked gambler Johnny Farrell has his life rescued in Buenos Aires by casino owner Ballin Mundson, who likes his style and offers him a job. However, their cosy arrangement is violently disrupted by the sudden arrival of Mundson’s new wife Gilda, a fiery redhead Johnny has met before. Johnny struggles to keep Gilda, and his own feelings, in check, but Ballin seems too busy with his curious business dealings to take much notice.
Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is the kind of guy who lives dangerously, taking advantage of hairy situations and living to tell the tale. For example, when he’s saved from a robbery by stranger Ballin Mundson (George Macready) and his pointy friend, he repays the kindness by cheating at Mundson’s illegal Buenos Aires casino; and when Mundson calls him to his office, Farrell’s chutzpah and handy fists earn him a job looking after the joint.
However, Johnny’s cushy world comes crashing down when Ballin returns from a business trip with an exotic souvenir – a knockout, flame-haired wife called Gilda (Rita Hayworth). Johnny and Gilda instantly hate each other, but it’s the kind of hate that’s obviously born of a tempestuous history, a passion that went badly wrong. Gilda teases Johnny – charged to look after her – by spending her spare time at the casino, throwing herself at any decent (or indecent) man she meets, while Ballin is tied up in murky business dealings involving a cartel, papers in the safe and some very interested Germans, all under the nose of discreet Argentine cop Obregon (Joseph Calleia). The Germans get too close for comfort and Mundson flees, but not before seeing Johnny finally getting too close to his wife. With Mundson presumed dead, Johnny marries Gilda; not for love, but to try to keep her singing in a cage.
There are clearly two different things going on in Gilda: firstly, there’s a brilliantly warped love triangle between Ballin, Johnny and Gilda, each of them wrestling for control with the weapons at their disposal. The strength of Johnny’s hatred for Gilda is fascinating, and the way she fights back captivating, while Mundson lurks in the background with a curious, cold menace. Secondly, there’s a strange tale of Tungsten mines and Nazi patents, of corruption and megalomania, which doesn’t hang together and fails to excite the senses in anything like the same way. Luckily, the passionate plot takes the lion’s share of the running time and this makes for a mostly engrossing film noir, complete with a smart sense of humour provided by provocative attendant Uncle Pio (Steven Geray).
But Gilda’s interest is not just qualified by the baffling subplot. While the writing is pretty acerbic, it’s not exactly Casablanca; and the interior locations don’t entirely capture the Latin heat of Argentina (the liveliness of the carnival – where one of the Germans meets a sticky end – makes you yearn for colour). Furthermore, although the filmmaking shows almost no technical limitations from being made in the 1940s, the incessant smoking is definitely of its time and may well make you reach to open a window.
All that said, any niggles about the plot are almost completely swept away by something you simply don’t get in the movies any more: the star power of Rita Hayworth. Hayworth is a stunning woman, the absolute embodiment of movie star glamour, with long, flowing hair (you instinctively know she’s a redhead, despite the monochrome visuals), a face the camera just adores, and curves – as they used to say – in all the right places. She carries off Gilda’s free-spiritedness too, sending Johnny, Ballin and countless others into a frustrated frenzy of distrust and desire (as Obregon observes, in distinctly un-PC fashion, “Women can be extremely annoying”).
She’s not, however, an actress who possesses great range or subtlety; and as the film becomes more complex, and Ford manfully portrays Johnny’s erratic power trip, she regresses into what she knows best – song and dance numbers (though she doesn’t sing, just like she – very, very obviously – doesn’t play the guitar). Of course, where the story goes isn’t really Hayworth’s fault. Once Gilda flees to Venezuela, the film loses its shape and never really regains it; and while the ending ties up all the loose ends, it feels rushed and more than a little pat.
Still, in the pantheon of tungsten monopoly movies, Gilda stands sumptuously-coiffed head and sublime shoulders above the rest. If you’re the sort of person who deliberately ignores anything in black and white on the grounds that it’s old and boring, not all of this picture will change your mind. If, on the other hand, you care anything for abrasive character-based drama or good old-fashioned Hollywood glamo(u)r, you will either have seen it already or should do so as soon as you can. And if you just came looking for Rita’s sultry dance to Put The Blame On Mame – well, I just hope you followed the rest of the movie first!