A restored version of Charles Vidor’s 1946 film Gilda is released in the UK by The Criterion Collection today. Fiona Pleasance revisits a classic noir.
When I was growing up, I sometimes played with a girl who lived up the road. One day she told me that, on a visit to London with her parents in the 1970s, her path had somehow crossed with that of an older woman, who told my friend that she had once been a Hollywood movie star. Her name, I was informed, was Rita Hayworth.
My friend didn’t know who she was, but I did. I had seen Gilda.
Once you’ve seen Rita Hayworth in Gilda, you don’t forget her in a hurry. After she has burst onto the screen in one of the best movie entrances of all time, she’s all killer cheekbones, bare shoulders and impossibly lustrous, bouncy hair. Nowhere else has the latent sexual promise in the simple removal of one long, black satin glove been quite so well expressed. As a kid I wasn’t entirely sure what Hayworth was selling, but there was absolutely no doubting, even then, the way in which she sold it.
Rewatching the film a ridiculous number of years later in Criterion’s restored Blu-ray edition, I find my memory of Hayworth’s visual impact remarkably well preserved. Such is the power of high-wattage movie stardom over the decades, filtered through silver and light. The travails of Hayworth’s later life, of which there were many – including man trouble, alcoholism, and Alzheimer’s disease – become irrelevant in a flicker of the camera shutter. Isn’t that one of the things we love about old movies? Long-gone stars are instantly restored to vibrant, beautiful life.
Of the rest of the film, I had virtually no memory at all, which is unsurprising in retrospect because most of it will have gone way, way over my head. Now that I know more – about life in general and film noir in particular – I might have told my younger self that, shall we say, interesting relationships between male characters are a common feature of those movies. That they often end up sleeping with the same woman because they really want to be sleeping with each other. (OK, maybe I wouldn’t have told my younger self that last part.)
The homosexual subtext in Gilda is so explicit that it virtually qualifies as text. Glenn Ford plays Johnny Farrell, a gambler and hustler (not that kind) in Buenos Aires who runs into casino owner and crooked businessman Ballin Mundson, played by George Macready. After Mundson saves Farrell’s life by threatening an attacker with his “friend” – which, I kid you not, is a walking stick with a knife’s blade hidden at one end, and if there is a more phallic prop in all of noir please do let me know – he gives him a job. Farrell quickly becomes Mundson’s right hand man, and much more besides. In an interview quoted by Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, Ford says he and Macready “…knew we were supposed to be playing homosexuals”, and it really shows.
How else to explain Farrell’s jealous and frankly insane behaviour towards Gilda, the wife whom Mundson brings home, having married her on a whim two days after they met? Johnny and Gilda may have a history, but it’s Mundson Johnny is strangely overprotective of. When Johnny finally comes to his senses at the end of the film, it feels as if Mundson had cast a spell over him which only death could break. There’s a powerful sexuality at work here, and it isn’t Gilda’s.
This reading of Gilda also helps to explain one of its main contradictions. The character of Gilda should be the film’s femme fatale, and in fact she is often defined as such, but she doesn’t really fit the mould. The classic femme fatale – think Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, or Jane Greer in Out of the Past – is, as Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck’s character in the former) says, rotten to the core; using people, especially men, to get what she wants. Gilda isn’t like that at all, possessing a sweetness and a vulnerability which means that she is genuinely perplexed and hurt by Johnny’s behaviour. (Femmes fatale don’t get hurt, it bounces off them like rain). Sure, she runs around with other guys, but she can’t help it that they fall for her. It’s never serious, and the movie even tells us it was all just to get Johnny’s attention. She only married Mundson on the rebound in the first place. Even if she is breathtakingly beautiful, she’s not fatal, but human.
Gilda also differs from many other noirs in having a nominally happy ending. With the barrier between them gone, the protagonist and his old love are finally free to ride off into the sunset together. Of course, given the history of their relationship up to this point, things do not bode well – to put it mildly – but what the hell. For a brief, upbeat moment the movie suggests that, in the end, true love might finally have come through.
And before that, there are a nearly two hours of sex appeal, musical numbers, jealousy, bitterness and violence – emotional and physical – to enjoy. Watch it at the right age and that sort of thing can have a profound effect. At the very least, you’ll have an image of Rita Hayworth at her most stunning to carry around in your head for years to come.
The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray of Gilda is released today in the UK. It includes a 2k digital restoration of the film, a 2010 audio commentary by critic Richard Schickel, a piece from 2010 featuring Martin Scorsese and Baz Luhrmann and a new interview with film noir historian Eddie Muller, plus assorted other extras.