Friday, March 4, 2011

Gilda (1946, Charles Vidor)

At first glance, at least on a narrative level, there is something almost dismissive about Charles Vidor's noir staple Gilda.  Blame it on the gusto with which everyman Glenn Ford treads too close to White Heat, or the nonchalance (which turns out to be vulnerability) with which Rita Hayworth delivers her femme fatale.  The writing isn't lazy, just expected of the noir trope (at one point Hayworth opines of our antihero "he's an attractive man, if you like the type"), and the visual language (outside of the musical pieces) isn't nearly as stark as you'd expect.

But first glances are deceiving.  Gilda sticks in your craw long after it ends, ringing uncomfortable truths with a sustained resonance.  And as anyone who has seen Rita Hayworth in this picture knows, a mere glance can't to its subject justice.

Glenn Ford plays Johnny Farrell, our unreliable narrator, rescued like a damsel by Ballin Mundson (George Macready).  The two enter a completely non-comical bromance in which Johnny becomes second-in-command of Ballin’s casino and is told at the onset of the pick-up, “you must lead a gay life.”  It’s easy to call this an unfair, 21st-century misappropriation of the term if the two didn’t soon toast “to the three of us”:  Johnny, Ballin and Ballin’s cane sword.
Johnny is thrown into the noir labyrinth when his rise to success catches a hitch as he learns Ballin has taken a wife in Gilda.  Ford’s performance reads part jilted lover (his past with Gilda), part jealous lover (his present with Ballin) in his interaction with Hayworth’s Gilda.  We’re never given concrete details to their former, sour love affair, but when a peripheral character observes “you love each other terribly,” Johnny responds “I hate her!”, echoing Gilda’s earlier sentiment “I hate him.”
But their relationship is more than a cinematic exercise in the idiom “you only hurt the ones you love”:  these characters really mean it.  The cruelty doled out by these two legs of the triangle make the tacked-on, heterosexual conclusion seem nothing short of disingenuous.  Hayworth’s femme fatale throws herself at other men not because she is over-sexualized but to beg for the attention neither of her men are giving her.  Conversely, Johnny keeps tabs on Gilda as a chore--an assignment.  Any Hollywood stolen kiss is trampled in Johnny’s hellacious treatment of Gilda after Ballin’s presumed death.
Johnny marries Gilda to keep her under lock and key; Gilda is aware of her power over men and uses it, only here Johnny is more interested in forcing loyalty to his lost.   An implicit mutual loyalty, as the marriage is explicitly never consummated.  Gilda (strangely becoming the film's victim) enters the noir labyrinth as any attempt at escape brings her back to the feet she abhors. 
What is most interesting about our hero is his mental derangement (his narration regarding Gilda becomes increasingly skewed as his frustration mounts) comes as an overcompensation for his impotence.  While the classic noir trope enforces implicit relations for our heroes, Johnny effortlessly resists Gilda at every turn.  The mystery of their prior affair confirms this inadequacy.  Johnny grapples in his male skin in which every sexual outlet is diseased (his relationship with Ballin, taboo; his relationship with Gilda, monumentally cruel; Gilda's relationship with Ballin, sadomasochistic).

Gilda is a rarity for 1946 any year in that writing credits for both the story (E.A. Ellington) and screenplay (Marion Parsonnet), as well as production credit (Virginia Van Upp) are all women.  The curveball thrown to audiences with such a fresh voice is staggering.  Hayworth's signature number "Put the Blame on Mame" sums up the anti-Bogart swag: men are afraid of the alien nature of a woman's allure.  Some women take advantage of this, some men blame every misfortune on this.  But it calls a spade a spade: Gilda's prominent female voice steers it from the misogyny of many noir pieces and, if anything, paints the male as the object.  Not that I'm complaining. -- ***½ / four stars

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