Gilda is fascinating for the way it helped create the legend of Rita Hayworth. So many elements of the film contribute to her image as the ultimate sex symbol. There’s the famous first shot of her, when she throws her hair into the air and purrs “Hello boys” (this scene elicits hoots of appreciation from the prisoners in The Shawshank Redemption). Then there's all those glamourous evening gowns she wears and the way her hair is always lit from behind so it shines like a halo. And of course there’s the iconic poster which tells us “There NEVER was a woman like Gilda!”
Hayworth’s mannerisms and style have been so copied that it’s easy to forget she was the original -- that she was not merely a parody of herself. The breathy voice and eyelid-batting have influenced everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Jessica Rabbit. And there’s something about the way black and white film captures a beautiful actress’s face that colour just can’t do.
Gilda was made at a time (1946) when sexuality could be suggested on screen, but not in an overt manner. And the film contains gay subtext which had to be especially subtle. Some viewers won’t even notice it. The story features a wealthy businessman, Mundsen (George Macready), who employs a young swindler, Johnny (Glenn Ford), to run his illegal casino in Buenos Aires. It is hinted at, but never made explicit, that the two men have a homosexual relationship.
When Mundsen returns from America with Gilda (Hayworth), a stunning woman who he married just one day after meeting her, Johnny is not very happy about it. Is he just jealous of Mundsen’s new love affair? Or has he met Gilda before? Does his irrational hatred of her stem from a previous encounter? Hate leads to love, then back to hate, as allegiances continually shift in this bizarre love triangle.
Apart from Hayworth’s stellar performance, the other fun thing about this film is the sparkling dialogue. The script contains the kind of pithy one-liners that just don’t get written anymore. The classic films noirs of the 40s, like The Big Sleep and Double Indemnity, were full of this tough, witty dialogue, with lots of sexual innuendo and double entendres. In these films there is a constant sexual tension simmering just beneath the surface.
Gilda is all about double meanings and hidden agendas. The characters are cagey and evasive or even say the exact opposite of what they mean. “I hate you” can mean “I love you” and vice versa. It is a black and white film which is all about the grays in life. You are never even sure if you can trust Glenn Ford’s voice-over narration.
If there’s a criticism to be made, it’s that towards the end of the film the plot twists become rather contrived and there’s a silly, nonsensical subplot about Mundsen and his Nazi cohorts trying to control the world’s supply of tungsten. At this stage the story becomes too movie-ish, too Hollywood, rather than being purely about the characters. But by then it’s too late to dislike the film -- you will already have been won over by seductive Gilda.
(Released by Columbia Pictures; not rated by MPAA.)