Gilda is a film I’ve seen about 30 minutes of and for the life of me couldn’t push past that thirty minutes. Call it whatever you will but my mind wasn’t ready to process this film, until now. Gilda is a film mired in camp conventions. The characters don’t ever talk the way normal people do and everything is in a constant state of alert (or arousal) from the characters to the plot. That’s not to say the film is bad, you just have to be prepared for what you’ll see. With that being said Gilda is a fun film and Rita Hayworth walks away with the show. Whenever she appears the film becomes brassier, funnier, engaging. She’s a cog in a love triangle that screams homoerotic and elevates the movie beyond its standard film noir mentality.
Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is a small-town gambler who, through a stroke of luck, becomes the right hand man to South American casino owner Ballin Mundson (George Macready). When Ballin brings home his new wife Gilda (Hayworth) the trio start to butt heads as Gilda and Johnny were once in a relationship.
I mentioned above how Gilda utilizes a camp sensibility by its use of exaggerated dialogue, acting, and storyline. The characters have snappy one-liners and that no one would say in real life. My personal favorite has to be when Gilda herself tells a male suitor, “If I was a ranch they’d name me the ‘bar none.'” The strongest examples of camp are seen in the relationship between Johnny and Ballin, I’m sure this was used to subvert the censors of the time. Ballin is first introduced in true camp fashion by calling the cane he carries with him his “silent friend.” Once Johnny is ingrained into Ballin’s life, it’s said that it’s “the three of us” (yes including the cane).
A discerning viewer will easily be able to understand the underlying relationships and tensions in the relationship between our three main characters. The homoeroticism is ramped up to 100 between Johnny and Ballin from the minute they meet. George Macready plays Ballin theatrically, upping that camp quality, but also connecting to the stereotypical effeminate nature of homosexuality. The cane Ballin carries has a whole slew of phallic implications and when he declares Johnny part of the threesome, including said cane, you’re understanding that their relationship is built little on the job at hand. Once Gilda arrives on the scene everyone, including the butler, knows this will put a wrench in the established gay relationship between Johnny and Ballin (the butler tells Johnny “I hope things will be the same”). What’s doubly intriguing is that Gilda is aware of the situation, or at least of Ballin’s past interest in men. In one scene she tells Ballin he surrounds himself with “ugly women and beautiful men.” Even Johnny masks his jealous of having Gilda around. He tells Ballin “women and gambling don’t mix” and then narrates how he’d like to hit Gilda then hit Ballin. Conveniently, the script does the job of masking Johnny’s sexuality by making the crux of the film revolve around his relationship with Gilda although once the two are married in the third act Johnny makes a point of stating that he married Gilda as punishment for them both betraying Mundson (he thinks Gilda has cheated but his betrayal alludes to possibly loving a woman?) and guards her “out of loyalty” to Ballin.
We can’t step around how vital Rita Hayworth is to this film. For me, I didn’t need the main plot, Johnny Farrell, or Ballin, I needed Gilda and Rita Hayworth! She’s such a multi-faceted character for a film noir like this and yet she’s not a prude nor femme fatale. Gilda does use her sexuality and is promiscuous but she’s not malicious or murderous. If anything Gilda is a smart ass of the classiest caliber. She says everything with confidence and sarcasm. When she’s first introduced to Johnny she sarcastically exclaims “I want all the hired help to approve of me.” She can insult with a smile and a wink with the best example being how she remembers Johnny’s name: “Johnny is such a hard name to remember and so easy to forget.” I’m going to try to refrain from just including lines of Gilda’s dialogue but I make no promises!
A famous quote of Rita Hayworth’s is in reference to this film: “Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda… and woke up with me” and while sad for her personally, Gilda proves it to be true. Hayworth makes every scene sexy by her presence alone and while she’s given highly suggestive lines, like ‘Latin men are good at dancing and…what’s your telephone number,” she presents the character with vulnerability. How devastating it must be for her to discover a man she hates, and a loveless marriage. The only way for her to gain attention is by making those who “love” her despise her as that’s the only emotion they know. To diverge, I do love the emphasis the script places on emotion. Throughout there are discussions about the effects of love and hate and while Johnny never mentions the two together, Gilda combines her hatred for Johnny into desire, making her the only one able to reconcile the two emotions. With that being said a lot of Gilda’s anger comes through during her sexual conquests. When Johnny wants to know where she is, she counters with “What’s his (Ballin’s) is yours?” The two men share Gilda effectively without her consent and I love how Gilda is a powerful woman able to tell men what she thinks of them…for the most part. Even when Johnny tries to help Gilda with a cover story about going to the movies she makes Johnny uncomfortable by purring “Do you want to know if I enjoyed it?” Johnny gets incredibly uncomfortable the franker Gilda gets, returning to that homoerotic nature I mentioned previously.
I have to make mention of Gilda’s beautiful wardrobe in this film. I don’t normally go into things like costuming, hair, or makeup because I hate to fall into my “girl” stereotypes but boy was I floored by how stunning Hayworth looked in this. Having started out by seeing The Lady From Shanghai (which I reviewed a month or so ago) this is a total 360 for Hayworth although considering this came out first fans would say I have it backwards. Her gowns, designed by iconic designer Jean Louis, combine the angelic with the devilish. The dresses are long and with her flowing hair create a goddess (probably why Hayworth was labeled “The Love Goddess”) and yet the way the dresses expose her arms and back while emphasizing her breasts and hips presents the devil in her.
With all the discussion attributed to Hayworth that leaves poor “star,” Glenn Ford out of the loop. I can’t recall seeing any other Ford films but I didn’t care for him. Not just because Hayworth is such a scene stealer but because he’s a total dick. I’ve discussed the homosexual angle in-depth already but outside of that he doesn’t have much depth. He hates Gilda yet he loves her. He hates Ballin yet he loves him and that’s it. I mean we learn all we need to about him by how he talks in comparison to Ballin with his gritty noir one-liners to Ballin’s enunciated, clipped manner of speaking. Other than that I didn’t find anything compelling about him. I didn’t want him to succeed because he never does anything worthy of being labeled “good.” Hell, the entire third act is him being a dick to Gilda until he discovers she’s not cheating on him and then he apologizes.
I think that’s the saddest part of Gilda; what it gives out only to take away. See Gilda wants desperately out of the marriage because, despite loving Johnny, he doesn’t talk to her or let her have any happiness. She tells him if he thinks she’s a slut then she’ll be one but she loves him and hasn’t done anything to him! Yet it’s only when another character says “she’s not a slut,” that Johnny slaps his forehead and thinks “Oh I’m an ass.” To add insult to injury Gilda forgives him! He’s called her a whore and, in one scene, he slaps her, and yet she tells him “okay we’re good.” In looking at the first half this appears to be another censorship sequence. Gilda can be strong and slutty but after going through punishment she has to be forgiving and yearning to change her ways. It didn’t work for me because Gilda is far smarter than she is at the end.
While discussing the meat of the film there is a fair bit of plot I didn’t discuss but it mainly includes a kick back scheme, fake deaths, and additional theatrical sequences that enhance its camp persona. To me, Gilda is all about relationships, specifically Gilda and her men. Hayworth is astounding and I recommend the film, I just don’t consider it perfect namely because Glenn Ford’s story isn’t dynamic enough.
Interested in purchasing today’s film? If you use the handy link below a small portion will be donated to this site! Thanks!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.