Classic Movie Reviews: Gilda
By Josh Spiegel
May 8, 2009
For most people these days, the 1946 film noir Gilda is best known because of its star, Rita Hayworth. What's more, most people haven't seen the actual film, only the clip that features in the 1994 modern classic The Shawshank Redemption. Hayworth's visage, of course, is one of the most pivotal things in Shawshank, but what of Gilda, the movie that launched and crashed Hayworth's career in one fell swoop? Though it takes some cues from the 1942 drama Casablanca, the movie as a whole falls flat, especially when copping out in the final act.
Unlike most film noirs, this one breaks a major trend with its ending. Up to that point, though, it's worth noting that Gilda is a fierce movie about three truly unlikable and morally confused characters. True, you may not want to spend that much time with people as prickly as these, but so few movies are willing to avoid the audience having a strong bond with its leads. That alone gets my praise. Hayworth plays, obviously, Gilda, a femme fatale who comes between the narrator of the film, Johnny Farrell, and the diabolical owner of a casino in Buenos Aires, Ballin Mundson. The strongest and most complex performance comes from Glenn Ford, as Farrell. As one of the harshest men to hold a grudge, someone who becomes too oddly devoted to Mundson, his employer, Farrell is a difficult character to sympathize with, and Ford helps add to the confusion. He's charming and charismatic, but distant and frosty, someone who you want to like but doesn't want to like you.
The story of Gilda starts out as we meet Farrell, a down-on-his-luck gambler who's about to be caught for ripping off a fellow player when the mysterious and menacing Mundson saves his life. Mundson, a casino owner with his hands in a few different pies, sees the beginning of a long relationship with Farrell, one that is far deeper than the ever-watchful Hayes Code that censored Hollywood movies from the 1930s to the 1960s would allow. We never see any particulars (and frankly, most movies these days would barely touch the storyline any further), but it seems more than clear that when Mundson offers Farrell the job of being his right-hand man, his main henchman, they're starting much more than just a working relationship. Within the first 15 minutes, we've seen these two men go from meeting each other in a darkened alley to being so close that they could probably read each other's thoughts.
And yet Mundson is a cruel man, someone who uses people and their feelings, and tosses them away when he no longer has a need for them. That's why he goes on a trip out of town and returns with his new wife, a woman named Gilda. Her entrance is one of the great moments in all of film, replayed in a scene from Shawshank; Hayworth, bending down, flips her head up to face Farrell and Mundson, letting her red hair fly and cementing her status as a star forever. Now, I bet I know what you're thinking. You're assuming that the rest of Gilda is about how Mundson and Farrell fight over Gilda, not just over her but over their own friendship. Of course, things couldn't be that simple. In a truly Dickensian twist (one that is very hard to swallow), we find out that Farrell's initial dislike of Gilda isn't just because he wants Mundson to himself...it's because Gilda and Farrell not only know each other from their past time in Argentina, but were once lovers. Don't you just hate when your ex-lover marries your casino boss employer? I can't stand that kind of thing.