Monday, November 9, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Gilda"

"Gilda" is one of the ugliest movies I have ever seen, starring the most beautiful woman ever to grace a Hollywood screen.

When I say "Gilda" is ugly, I mean that it contains some of the darkest, most unattractive portrayals of human emotions I've ever seen. A recurring theme is that the three main characters hold onto their hatred for each other lovingly, even speaking openly about how the heat of hatred is exciting and keeps them warm.

The beautiful part is easy -- I have long considered Rita Hayworth to be the most gorgeous woman ever to star in the movies.

In "Shawshank Redemption," Red (played by Morgan Freeman) is watching "Gilda" and comments about her famous first appearance, where she flips her head up, bringing a cascade of dark curls: "I love when she does that shit with her hair."

"Gilda" was her most famous role, and her greatest curse. Married five times, Hayworth famously said, "Men fell in love with Gilda, but they wake up with me."

The story is about a pair of ex-lovers, both schemers and con artists. Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is a gambler who uses dice for his grifts, while Gilda uses her feminine wiles. In the backstreets of Buenos Ares, Johnny is rescued from a robber by Ballin Mundson (George Macready), a strange man in a suit and wielding a cane with a sword blade hidden inside. Johnny soon learns that Ballin owns the biggest casino in the city, and soon he has become Ballin's right-hand man.

They agreed at the outset of their partnership that women and gambling do not mix, but Ballin returns from a trip with Gilda in tow, having undergone a quickie marriage the day after he met her. Little does he know that Johnny and his new bride have a past together -- and not a pleasant one.

The two begin a game of one-upmanship, a low-simmering feud that is destined to boil over. Johnny is given the job of watching after Gilda, who's the original party girl. She gleefully takes up with other men for one-night stands, mostly to get Johnny's goat. In one scene, she answers a pretty boy's come-on with the line, "If I were a ranch, they'd call be the Bar Nothing."

Usually in these sorts of movies, the couple trading barbs are simply masking their confused love for one another. Things eventually work out that way, but not until the very end. The bile that is exchanged between Johnny and Gilda is truly venomous. At one point after Ballin's apparent death, Johnny marries her to get control of his boss' business ventures, and then proceeds to essentially lock her up in her apartment.

Frankly, the finale where they go off together doesn't feel very convincing, given all the terrible things that have gone on between them. It feels like a happy ending tacked on by Hollywood mandate.

"Gilda" was directed by Charles Vidor from a screenplay by Marion Parsonnett. The similarities to "Casablanca," which came out four years earlier, are pretty obvious.

The protagonist is a roguish but ultimately decent guy who works in a casino, has to deal with trouble from Germans, and can't stand that the woman who broke his heart has walked into his gin joint. His best friend also works in the casino, although in this movie Johnny and Ballin have traded the boss/employee roles of Rick and Sam. There's even a wise-cracking casino employee, Uncle Pio, who needles his superiors. Even the exotic international setting, and a local constable of indeterminate morality, are in the mix.

I liked "Gilda," but more for Hayworth than the movie around her. The knockout scene where she sings "Put the Blame on Mame" while doing a sultry semi-striptease is nearly at the end of the movie, but well worth the wait. It truly was a star-making role, the ultimate femme fatale. Gilda, who never touches a gun, is the most dangerous one of all.

3 stars

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