Buenos Aires, 1944: the setting of one of cinemas steamiest and most scintillating love triangles. Re-released for a limited time only at the BFI Southbank, Charles Vidor’s 1946 iconic film noir is a daring but flawed piece that established Rita Hayworth as a femme fatale to be reckoned with.
Glenn Ford plays Johnny Farrell, a seasoned hustler who has been kicked out of every town, city and state where he can roll a dice, toss a coin or play a hand. He finds himself in Argentina, back to his old tricks, back in black and back in trouble – held at knifepoint. Fortunately for Farrell, the sinister and savvy tycoon Ballin Mundson (George Macready) stumbles upon him and saves his life. A professional partnership quickly develops into a friendship as Ballin puts Farrell to work in his casino. The golden rule their relationship is built on is ‘women and money do not mix’, which is just fine by Farrell.
But this all changes with the introduction of the eponymous Gilda, who gets one of cinemas greatest introductions. Ballin returns from America in high spirits with something he desperately wants to show Farrell. Opening the door of the master bedroom in his mansion, Ballin exclaims, ‘Gilda, are you decent?’ The camera cuts to a close up of Hayworth, as she swooshes her thick, red hair back, and with her huge brown eyes and wide smile, exclaims, ‘me?!’. Anyone who has seen The Shawshank Redemption will recognise this moment from the scene where the inmates are glued to the cinema screen and erupt into cheers at the first sight of Hayworth.
However, the humour of the exchange quickly fades along with Gilda’s smile, as her big eyes lock with Farrell’s in a moment of horrific recollection. The two quickly try and hide their emotions but their hatred of each other is all too palpable and does little to hide the painful scars they each carry of a romance that went horribly wrong.
It’s a perfect set-up and the second act unfolds with Ford and Hayworth bouncing biting dialogue and stinging double entendres off each other while exchanging icy stares that hide the burning fires of lust, fuelled by hatred - something that Ballin immediately detects. The tension when the three are together rivals anything on stage or screen.
Sub plots involving a local detective investigating the goings on of the casino, and a group of Germans (Nazis – the buzz villains of the time) who want their tungsten patents back from Ballin at any price, add to the growing tension as Gilda goes out of her way to goad Farrell on by shamelessly flirting, singing and dancing with anything that has a pulse.
The piece seems to be building to a thrilling dénouement, with the final night of Carnival – the celebration to mark the end of fun, free-living and the start of abstinence and sacrifice – offering a superb backdrop. With all the players gathered at the casino and forces of antagonism converging, the scene appears to be set. The inevitable happens with Ballin catching Gilda and Farrell giving in to their urges in a scene of raw sexual passion; but then the movie goes off on a tangent and becomes a muddled mess of saedo-masochism with Farrell seizing power and forcing Gilda into a life of isolation and torture.
The restricted narrative that serves this and indeed the noir genre so well is abandoned, which has a jarring effect. The containment of the casino and Ballin’s mansion that created a stifling sense of claustrophobia is lost with scenes in multiple new locations, including a scene in Monte Video that is thrown in and serves no purpose. And there is no longer any sense of time, as months, perhaps even years pass.
The result is an elongated third act without a clear sense of purpose, drama or tension that seems to serve primarily as a way of crowbarring in a series of song and dance numbers to cash in on Hayworth’s star persona; before Gilda her most famous roles were in musicals opposite the likes of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. It’s as if the studio were worried that audiences would be disappointed by Hayworth’s performance if she didn’t have a big, solo, choreographed song and dance number (or two, as it were). This is a huge shame because Hayworth is more than accomplished; oozing sexuality, style and substance she seduces the audience and Farrell with the way she moves, the way she talks and is given license to show her moves and exercise her musical muscles by dancing with random strangers at the casino and performing ‘Put the blame on Mame’ with an acoustic guitar; this rendition is far more seductive than the big stage version that occurs later in the film.
Glenn Ford is fine enough as Farrell, but never managed to convince me he was more than a second rate James Cagney. George Macready is delightfully sinister as the cerebral tycoon with eyes on world domination, but his attraction to Gilda and details of their relationship are never established and his cool, calm and purposeful persona becomes one-note and tiresome. He also has the misfortune of a horribly expositional final speech before a death not worthy of a fifth rate hood in a 1960’s Batman episode.
One also can’t ignore the parallels between this and Casablanca. The exotic country, the location of a casino, the temporal period, a local detective, German antagonists and a love triangle with two members having a tumultuous romantic past they must keep secret from the third party are all obvious derivatives.
Gilda is a flawed masterpiece; a failed attempt to be a steamier Casablanca. It lacks a worthy third act, consistent with the style, story and quality of the first two thirds; thus, rather than being regarded as a classic film, it is Hayworth’s turn as the titillating, titular Gilda that it is remembered for. And as jaw dropping as her performance is (and it is!), it’s not enough to sufficiently distract from what seems like a missed opportunity at greatness.
Gilda is showing until the 29th of July at BFI Southbank.