Dishonest gambler Johnny Farrell is saved from being robbed by casino owner Ballin Mundsen. Mundsen who is equally dishonest finds his crooked dealers matched by Johnny skill and so he hires Johnny. Johnny prospers under Mundsen’s employment and rises to the position of his right hand man. Mundsen returns from a trip with his new wife Gilda, whom he suspects has met Johnny before although he can’t get either of them to admit to it.
After an attempt on his life Mundsen decides to take Johnny into his confidence and explains about his former business dealings with nazi’s. Meanwhile, Gilda is going out with every man she can seduce and Johnny is following her. Mundsen sees them together and supposedly commits suicide but this is fake and just to protect himself from some of his former business associates. Not knowing this Johnny carries on in Mundsen’s place and marries Gilda although he is suspicious and controlling. Police Inspector Obregon demands that Johnny provide him with information on the illegal cartel and when Johnny refuses Obregon closes the casino. Johnny and Gilda are reconciled just as he thinks she is leaving. Mundsen also returns and wants to kill Johnny and Gilda but he is killed himself. Johnny and Gilda leave together.
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With ‘Gilda’ we are on familiar film noir territory as the film involves itself in the under belly of society where men are hard and the women are callous but very, very beautiful. The film has one of the best entrances for a character in the whole of filmmaking. The snippet of Rita Hayworth throwing her hair back, appearing to be touched by a halo of light, has been seen so often that an audience is familiar with the film even if they have never watched the whole film through out. But there are still surprises in store and anyone who has not watched ‘Gilda’ quite frankly should. Immediately!
‘Gilda’ was directed by Charles Vidor. It is this film that he is perhaps best known for and it arrived about two thirds of a way through his career. ‘Gilda’ was a reunion of talent and skill that had worked successfully before. Charles Vidor had previously worked with Glenn Ford in ‘The Desperadoes’ and with Rita Hayworth in ‘Cover Girl’ and ‘The Loves of Carmen’. Vidor was a seasoned and sensitive director who had worked with some of the greatest actors and actresses of the time during his career. In less capable and less established hands ‘Gilda’ could easily have been tipped into melodrama which would have greatly lessened its impact. It would have diminished its impact and lessened it’s importance as an example of film noir. It would have also made it far less entertaining.
When the film was due to be released it was not surprising that the censors had issues with the content. Neither Rita Hayworth’s blatant sexuality, nor the collection of morally corrupt mobsters, is not watered down in any way. To the 1940’s audience it would have been brave and daring in a way that they were not used to. There is a certain irony to the fact that given the social and cultural context of the 1940’s Gilda is the sort of strong woman lead that we rarely get in modern day movies where female emancipation is apparently everywhere. There is an argument that can be made that part of Gilda’s power lies in the idea that she is acting against the accepted code of polite behaviour. Any objections that the censors may have had were nothing when it came to the audiences who lapped it up. The success of ‘Gilda’ had a positive impact on the careers of everyone involved in the project.
Rita Hayworth was already considered to be one of the most popular sex bombs of the 40’s and it plays on an image and a reputation that she already owned. It was the role that she was to become best known for playing and it would follow her. Rita and Gilda became intertwined and as successful as it was ‘Gilda’ was significant in typecasting Rita Hayworth the actress. Hayworth plays out every scene with a self-confidence that is almost intimidating leaving the audience in no doubt that Gilda is inevitably calling the shots with every man she comes into contact with.
Glenn Ford is the leading man who having once been Gilda’s lover now seeks to regain that passion and his possession of this uncontrollable woman. ‘Gilda’ and a few other films in the noir genre helped to make Glenn Ford’s name so it is slightly erroneous that it has been his roles in Westerns that he is actually better known for.
This is a love relationship that is fuelled by hatred and it is commented on by Mundsen as well as Gilda and Johnny themselves. They suffer from long standing resentments which cannot get in the way of their mutual attraction. Even their marriage becomes a weapon for mutual punishment. The past is always alluded to but it is the thing that is always just around the corner, unseen and unknown. The positive ending is unexpected, going against the ruling currents of feeling and intention that run through the film to that point. It also goes against the film noir type where happy endings are hard to come by. It will satisfy an audience and it takes a great deal of skill to achieve this kind of conclusion without being accused of arriving there through contrivance.
There really is so much to recommend ‘Gilda’. There is a reason that it has been used (The Shawshank Redemption anyone?) over and over again, gets referred to over and over again and has a substantial fan following even now. It is a fabulous movie in so many ways. Few movies even now can boast the great plot, great characters, superb acting, and intelligent directing.