d. Charles Vidor (1946)
The Criterion Collection Spine: #795
Blu-ray Release Date: January 19, 2016

Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc.

It’s a famous entrance: “Gilda, are you decent?” And then Rita Hayworth appears tossing her hair back as she says, “Me?” I had seen — as I’m sure you’ve seen — that iconic moment dozens of times, perhaps first in The Shawshank Redemption when all of the imprisoned men joyfully anticipate the scene and then collectively exclaim when Hayworth appears. But until reviewing the new Criterion edition, which hits shelves today, I hadn’t seen the film itself and knew relatively little about it. Indeed, that famous scene, which is often cut while Hayworth is still smiling, just before her face changes into something like fear and shock as she pulls her dress strap back onto her shoulder, led me to think this was just a simple film, famous because Rita Hayworth is beautiful and seductive. I’ve even seen smart critics say the film is a throwaway film, other than a few great Hayworth moments. Oh, that is very wrong! Gilda is a complex, rich, disturbing, dark, almost hateful film with a happy ending that should terrify anyone paying attention.


But let’s get to Hayworth in a moment. Her famous introduction isn’t for a while. First, the film establishes the complex relationship between two men. Glenn Ford plays Johnny Farrell, a man who “makes his own luck,” though when we first see him he looks to be on hard times. He’s throwing dice on the docks near Buenos Aires. Why is he in Buenos Aires? We don’t know. We never do. Indeed, though Johnny is also the film’s narrator, providing voiceover from time to time, rather than narrate the plot and backstory to us, the voiceover produces more questions, more intrigue, more for the audience to guess at and, potentially, be shocked at. He always stops short of giving us the pertinent details, which makes the film live in a space of dark potentiality. It’s as dark as our imagination can make it.

After winning a bit of money at the docks by cheating, Johnny walks away into the shadowy, lonely corridors between shipping crates, where he is accosted by a man with a gun. Another man intervenes, however, and saves Johnny. This man? The wealthy Ballin Mundson, played by George Macready. What is this wealthy man doing on the docks late at night? Again, we can assume it’s just a convenience, or we can start to wonder about just what kind of relationship Johnny and Ballin begin that night. It doesn’t end there; Johnny works his way into Ballin’s favor and becomes his number one at Ballin’s illegal casino.

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Glenn Ford as Johnny Farrell.

Johnny seems happy to be in Ballin’s service. He goes around the gambling floor in a suit now, and is protective of Ballin’s interests. Then, one day, Ballin asks him to come up to his room in his home. As they ascend the stairs, Johnny hears a woman singing. He’s shocked as Ballin had originally said that there was no room for a woman in this world. But he’s also shocked because he knows that voice.

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Rita Hayworth as Gilda, just before her face falls when she sees Johnny.

Ballin has brought home a new wife, Gilda. We know immediately that Gilda and Johnny have some kind of past together. They were lovers, and something went terribly wrong. Now they hate each other. Gilda uses her new position to torture Johnny as much as possible, flaunting her infidelity.

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This is all quite early in the film, and I felt that the film was a compelling look at how hatred can be born of love — and vice versa. Johnny tries to protect Ballin’s interests here as well, but really he is digging himself into a deeper hole. Ballin, after all, finds out soon that something is up. He talks to Gilda about this interesting conundrum:

GILDA: If you’re worried about Johnny Farrell, don’t be. I hate him.
BALLIN: And he hates you. That’s very apparent. But hate can be a very exciting emotion. Very exciting. Haven’t you noticed that?
GILDA: You make it s . . .
BALLIN: There is a heat in it that one can feel. Didn’t you feel it tonight?
BALLIN: I did. It warmed me. Hate is the only thing that has ever warmed me.

Ballin says this last line with a degree of relish. He’s right. The power of their hatred and what they do to display it is tremendous, and it feels very out of place in a 1946 film that had to come in under the production code. There is so much abuse, physical and mental, and Ford and Hayworth know how to display the disturbed glee and pain they’re feeling.

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It may be a spoiler, but I do want to quickly discuss an aspect of the film that at first doesn’t feel fitting: the ending. I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say that the film brings in an ostensibly happy ending (I’d love to know if this was always the plan or if something more, well, realistic was jettisoned at the behest of the censors). Still, this happy ending certainly doesn’t fit well with what’s come before. These two characters have been awful to each other, for reasons we still don’t know. But here they wash all of that away and go off together. But love, or whatever these two have at that point, will not be enough.

Because the ending is so terrifying, I loved it, as out of place as it feels. Indeed, it starts to feel very fitting. These are warped relationships based on a complex equation of love and hate, disgust and lust, power and submission. Naturally, there will be a time when the two will come together again and feel something like happy submission at the same time, giving them a false sense of confidence. I’ve seen it in the doomed relationships of people I love, and it’s awful to see a film suggest that this union is a good thing. But, of course, that’s the code for you. By imposing its values on the world it neglects to account for the dangers of false comfort. I hope — and I’m not too sure it’s a false hope — that that’s what the female producer and writer were going for when they put that final scene together.

I loved this murky film. Yes, Rita Hayworth is dazzling — this is one of the most magnetic performances I’ve ever seen, I say, realizing it sounds like hyperbole but being totally genuine — and I don’t think the film would work without her, but there is so much trembling underneath that dazzle.

The Criterion Edition:

  • First, we have a full-length audio commentary from 2010 by film critic Richard Schickel. Schickel doesn’t seem to have a script and mainly responds to what’s going on on the screen, whether that’s to talk a bit about an actor or about a plot point or about the lighting, but he is very knowledgeable. A good commentary, but not one that I felt added much that we don’t get elsewhere in the supplements.
  • Martin Scorsese and Baz Luhrman on Gilda: This is a 2010 16:06-minute appreciation from directors Martin Scorsese and Baz Luhrman. I could listen to Scorsese talk about film all day long, and I very much appreciated all he had to say about Gilda. I find Luhrman much less compelling, but he offers some background on how technically difficult this film must have been — saying he knows because Nicole Kidman’s hair in Moulin Rouge! was based on Rita Hayworth’s in Gilda. A fine feature, but my preferences made me always anxious for Scorsese to come back when Luhrman was talking.
  • Hollywood and the Stars: The Odyssey of Rita Hayworth: This is a 1964 episode of the series that runs 25:11. Joseph Cotten narrates the basic life of Rita Hayworth. It’s a great snippet from its time, especially since Hayworth was still alive and contributed her own voice to the episode. However, as a product of its time, it feels like an incredibly sanitized account of Hayworth’s transformation, including changing her hairline, into the “love goddess,” all without a whiff of regret. Also, Hayworth’s own words . . . well, one wonders if they are her own words. It’s a great feature for showing how her story was presented at the time, but there is not much else in this edition to give some of the uglier details.
  • Last, other than the trailer, wee get the best supplement: a 22:14-minute interview with film noir historian Eddie Muller that Criterion conducted last year. Muller talks about the film’s subtext, particularly the potentially homosexual relationship between the two male leads. Nicely, Muller doesn’t just leave it at a potential homosexual relationship and move on. He digs in, looking at the power dynamics both as they played out in the film and as they played out with the censors, who probably knew what was going on in the film but didn’t dare say anything for fear of suggesting they understood anything about homosexuality. Knowledgeable and compelling, Muller is a great voice on any release, and he does a great job with Gilda.
  • The disc comes with a fold-out poster insert featuring an essay, “The Long Shadow of Gilda,” by critic Sheila O’Malley.
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