There never was a girl like Gilda. Or so the slogan goes. But for many Gilda became memorable not for Rita Haworth’s iconic film but for its fleeting and crucial appearance in The Shawshanks Redemption. Yes, this is the film in which the poster covered Andy Dufresne’s escape route out of Shawshank. So thank the cinematic gods for Criterion who have given Gilda a good old touch up to bring that hair flick back to glorious life and to a new audience.
The story is your basic 1940s love triangle. Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is a gambler who meets casino owner Ballin Mudson (George Macready). With the two becoming firm friends Ballin makes Johnny his right hand man in running the casino. But Mudson’s business interests run much deeper and stretch as far as a group of Nazis who hold a grudge. The waters are truly muddied though when Ballin brings home his new wife Gilda (Rita Hayworth) who it soon transpires shares a bitter history with Johnny.
With it’s bordertown setting, put so eloquently by Baz Luhrmann in one of the documentaries accompanying this release, it is immediately reminiscent of Casablanca. But while Bogey and Bergman acted out an achingly tragic love story Hayworth and Ford go for something much darker. This is the closest thing to an anti-Casablanca as you’re likely to see. And the results are deliciously seductive and devilish.
What makes Gilda so wonderfully immersive is its noirish framework. All the hallmarks are there, the down trodden voice over that hints at a bleak ending, the shady morals of all involved. Then there’s the tropes, the femme fatale who keeps everyone, the audience included, on tenterhooks as to her true motives, the dialogue peppered to delectable levels with double meanings and cutting barbs. It’s a feast before you even reach the sumptuous aesthetics. All chiaroscuro lighting cutting through every shot with a dark foreboding long before silhouetted characters start lurking in the shadows.
Made at the height of the Hays Code the film has to convey Gilda’s raw sexuality by, certainly in today’s standards, showing nothing. As such director Charles Vidor demonstrates that less is more. Like the shark in Jaws much is left up to the audience’s imagination. You never see Gilda in anything less than her evening wear, but it’s impossible not to sense you’ve seen her stripped bare such is the staggering ora, chemistry and vulnerability Gilda displays. The dresses have become the stuff of legend but it is the way Vidor and his cinematographer Rudolph Maté capture every shimmer, every shoulder glance, every iota of seuxal body language on display that makes your heart flutter.
In the protagonist role Ford is wonderfully dry. He’s the posterboy for scruffy chancer of noir law. He’s all sarcastic delivery and brooding looks that pack a punch much harder than anything the hired muscle of the film can muster.
But Gilda became seminal thanks to its leading lady, and what a leading lady. In an era in which cultural icons are depressingly measured by their Twitter following Hayworth shows how it’s done properly, with style, grace and breathtaking beauty. A cigarette permanently perched on her lips, her face never ceasing to be a feast of seductive, ravishing expressions. Add to that a smile with enough wattage to power several nuclear power stations and she’s a force to be reckoned with. But despite all her bombshell mannerism it’s Hayworth’s emotional fragility that makes you adore her even more. One minute she’s the ultimate sex symbol, the next a damaged dame desperate to be loved by a real man, if anyone can muster the courage to put themselves out there.
A bonafide classic and one to revel in over and over again. Because, of all the casinos in all the towns in all the world Gilda had to walk into his. And we’re damn lucky she did.