Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Rita Hayworth Delivers A Lead Performance For The Ages in the Endlessly Awesome Gilda

The Femme Fatale archetype is a common one in the terrain of film noir's but who is the most iconic of the numerous examples of this sort of character? If you did a Battle Royale involving film noir femme fatales, who would come out on top? Well, any character played by Barbara Stynwick would have to be in consideration. Ditto anyone played by Rita Hayworth, she had a commanding presence, an assuredness in her line deliveries and a remarkable sense of wit that made her unforgettable in movies like The Lady from Shanghai and the subject of this review, Gilda. Hayworth had plenty of noteworthy roles but her work as the titular part in this 1946 Charles Vidor directorial effort may be her most iconic work.

Gilda does not begin with our titular lead. Just as superhero movies need their blue sky beams or Pure Flix movies need terrible screenwriting, film noirs need reflective opening narration from a male protagonist. In this case, Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) informs the audience that, once upon a time, he was once a guttersnipe who played card games with loaded dice. His activities in these scummy surroundings almost got him killed but he ended up having his life saved from wealthy casino owner Ballin Mundson (George Macready).  From here, Mundson offers Farrell a job at his establishment, an occupation that soon sees Farrell entering Mundson's best possible graces.

Soon, Mundson gets himself married to Gilda (Rita Hayworth, there she is!), a woman who, unbeknownst to Mundson, has an extensive and nasty history with Farrell. Also unknown to Mundson is that Gilda is going out wherever, whenever and whoever she wants behind his back. Not wanting to lose his cushy life, Farrell begins to do whatever he can to corral Gilda. All of this deception plus Mundson is running a monopoly that works for a cartel. Traditional film noirs were built upon the premise of the world being an immoral place. Gilda takes the cake when it comes to being a prime example of this trait. Not until the last five minutes do any sort of traditional sense of morality enter the proceedings.

That's really no problem for me since film noir nastiness is usually pretty much up my alley. These films being made during the Hayes Code era means they can't get too gratuitously graphic. Meanwhile, their ability to cleverly sneak in whatever crudeness is possible under restrictive Hayes code guidelines is frequently quite entertaining. In the case of Gilda, its particular brand of film noir depravity is especially fun since Rita Hayworth doing most of the treachery. From the moment she enters the movie flipping her red locks back with a beaming smile on her face, Hayworth immediately establishes a captivating aura you can't look away from.

The character of Gilda constantly carries a presence that makes it clear she's the one calling the shots in her life. Hayworth's performance makes you 110% believe that aspect of the character while her sense of timing in her line deliveries is utterly outstanding. The screenplay, credited to Jo Eisinger and Marion Parsonnet, gives her plenty of great dialogue to deliver while their writing also deserves special kudos for delivering a knockout climax. This finale not only has a heavy amount of excitement but this duo uses this section of Gilda to effectively pay-off previously established elements of the story. I had totally forgotten about Mundson until he made a delightful return into the story while it was a hoot to see how much of an active part Uncle Pio (Steven Geray) has to play into the proceedings.

Shining as brightly as this delightful climax is Gilda's cinematography (which is credited to Rudolph Mate), particularly in its great use of shadows. I've always felt both smoke and shadows look best in films shot in black-and-white and Gilda makes a convincing case for the latter's visual strengths in a monochromatic setting. There's plenty of bold uses of shadows throughout the film, particularly in shots where they're draped over Mundson to reinforce how much of an obstacle he is for both Gilda and Johnny. Whether it's in its cinematography, its writing or that unforgettable lead performance from Rita Hayworth, Gilda delivers top-shelf work. If you're looking for a particularly exceptional classic movie to watch while you're stuck at home practicing social distancing, give Gilda a watch, as of this writing (on March 24, 2020), it's streaming on the Criterion Channel!

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