Charles Vidor’s Gilda premiered on February 14, 1946, and went into wide release on March 15. It’s best remembered as the film that made Rita Hayworth the biggest sex symbol of the ’40s. (Not that she was a shrinking violet before 1946. I saw her in the 1944 film Cover Girl when I was a kid, and I never forgot her.)
Born Margarita Carmen Cansino in Brooklyn in 1918, Hayworth was the daughter of Spanish flamenco dancer Eduardo Cansino, Sr. and Ziegfeld girl Volga Hayworth. With that kind of pedigree, her hundred-megawatt sex appeal should come as no surprise, but it does, even today. Usually the only image I post with a review is the theatrical poster, but for this review I was tempted to plaster up several cheesecake shots of Hayworth. The only problem with photos of her is that they lack something. She looks great in all of her pinup shots, but her blisteringly hot sexiness is something that needs to be seen on film to be believed. It doesn’t hurt that nearly every line in Gilda is an innuendo. When she first appears on screen, throwing back her mountain of wavy hair, and her husband asks her if she’s decent, the long pause after her bright, “Me?” followed by the husky response, “Sure, I’m decent,” clearly has nothing to do with whether or not she’s fully clothed.
Besides the obvious lascivious value Hayworth offers the production, Gilda is a pretty good movie, full of nasty double-crosses and intrigue in an exotic locale. At one hour and 50 minutes, it overstays its welcome by at least 10 or 15 minutes, but it’s still an entertaining film noir about love-hate relationships, high-stakes gambling, and double-dealing.
When we meet Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford), he’s just another down-on-his-luck gringo in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a post-war hot spot (and not just for Nazi war criminals on the lam). In noir fashion, Farrell narrates the picture, sounding jaded and world-weary when he’s not twisted up with hatred and lust. Caught cheating at craps, Farrell is saved from a vicious beating at the hands of a bunch of thugs by a dapper gentleman named Ballin Mundson (George Macready) who wields a sword cane. Mundson tells Farrell of a casino where he can go to make some real money; a ritzy, illegal establishment that operates in the open, thanks to bribery. Mundson warns Farrell, however, not to cheat there. The bullheaded Farrell does exactly that, and is caught. A couple of mugs drag him into the second-floor office to face the boss, who turns out to be none other than Mundson. A fast talker, Farrell convinces Mundson to give him a job in the casino, and he quickly rises to the level of right-hand man.
Things go along swimmingly until the day that Mundson ignores his own advice that “Gambling and women don’t mix,” and brings home his new wife, Gilda (Hayworth). From the look on Farrell’s face when he first sees her, he might as well be seeing the atomic bomb being dropped on Nagasaki. Unaware that Farrell and Gilda share a history, Mundson entrusts his right-hand man with Gilda’s care and keeping. Forced to shield Mundson from Gilda’s constant indiscretions with other men, Farrell’s hatred of Gilda increases. Only it isn’t really hatred. It’s that strange brand of love/hate that fueled many a post-war film noir. Or, as Mundson himself puts it at one point, “It warmed me. Hate is the only thing that has ever warmed me.”
Meanwhile, Mundson’s secret plans to form a cartel with a group of Germans to control tungsten production in Argentina slowly comes to light, and Farrell realizes that the Argentine secret police are onto Mundson, and that the whole casino is a powder keg waiting to be ignited.
Argentina had a checkered history during World War II. The nation broke relations with Germany and Japan in 1944 only under heavy pressure from the United States, but continued to maintain its neutrality. On March 27, 1945, Argentina declared war on Germany, when German defeat was a foregone conclusion.
It’s a great setting for a tale of steamy intrigue (with a brief narrative sojourn in Montevideo), but the political and criminal machinations take a back seat to the sexual tension between Farrell and Gilda. Their love/hate relationship takes some nasty turns, both physical and psychological. (In the scene in which Gilda slaps Farrell across both sides of his face, Hayworth reportedly chipped two of Ford’s teeth.) The story also takes a back seat to the sheer physical spectacle of Gilda, in particular the show-stopping number in which she performs “Put the Blame on Mame.” Hayworth lip-synched to Anita Ellis’s singing voice, and did an excellent job. Just from watching the movie I wouldn’t have had any idea she wasn’t singing herself.
“If I’d been a ranch, they would have named me the Bar None,” Gilda says at one point in the film. Truer words have not been spoken.