Friday, November 4, 2016

Gilda (1946)

Before watching this film, I took in some of the extra features on Criterion's (superb) bluray edition.   In the "appreciate" by Martin Scorsese and Baz Luhrmann, one comment by Luhrmann stuck out to me-  He made some comparisons between Gilda and Casablanca.  On the surface, this made some sense.  3 exiles in an exotic location far from home, caught in a triangle of passions; a married  couple bursts into the life of a man who has a secret past with the woman in the picture.

But as I watched the film I quickly saw just how superficial the comparison was.  Indeed, if anything, Gilda is a complete inversion of the Casablanca formula.  Gilda is Casablanca if Bogart and Bergman despised one another, and Paul Henreid were a preening, jealous, villainous scheming jerk.  Still, I suppose superficial comparisons ought to be expected from a director who is more skilled as a visual stylist than as someone who is known for his ability to draw out deep and subtle, genuine human performances from his actors.

But rather than comment on the commentary, let's dig right into the film itself.  Gilda is produced by former screenwriter Virginia Van Upp, who previously worked with the film's star Rita Hayworth on Cover Girl, and would work again with her on Affair in Trinidad, as well as working on the script for both those titles.  Collaborating on the script for this film, as she had with Cover Girl, is Marion Parsonnet. It is my opinion that the influence of these two had a definite influence on the films success in introducing an authentic feminine voice to the tale, which after all, is titled for the female lead.

Despite the outstanding performances delivered by all three leads, this in not titled Gilda, Johnny and Ballin, or even just Gilda and Johnny.  Gilda is Rita Hayworth's picture all the way, even with Glenn Ford's character Johnny Farrell providing the narrator's voice and the audience's window into the drama. All the attention is squarely directed toward her, delivered by the  careful framing and adoring direction of Charles Vidor and cinematography of Rudolph Mate. And why not, when you see what she is able to do with the part?  Beyond the way she torches the screen with her two musical numbers, (one of which, Put the Blame on Mame, I will confess to having had stuck in my head all day after watching the film.  It may not be her own voice doing the singing, but who's counting? It's Anita Ellis, if you're curious) she creates a character that burns into the screen with a dazzling brilliance that leaves an unforgettable impression.

The film opens with Ford as Johnny, a gambler, scratching for quick money on the docks of a city in Argentina, and introduces the circumstances that lead to his getting tied up in a subservient partnership with the German casino owner and cartel head Ballin Mundson (George MacReady), but it only really comes to life when Hayworth's character Gilda is introduced.  She bursts onto the scene like a spark into a powder keg.  She is introduced to Johnny as Mundson's wife, but we immediately pick up on a still raw and recent history between Gilda and Johnny.

So does Ballin Mundson.

He doesn't like what he sees.

Mundson is a man who is driven by a lust for power, and dominance over everyone around him. He refers to his trick switch-blade cane dagger as his "faithful and obedient friend," which apparently is he idea of what the word friend means.  Only absolute submission to him is grounds for being considered a friend.  Johnny understands this, and gamely plays along, working his way into Mundson's trust and into a position for himself that is significantly cozier than the position Mundson found him in the opening, being held up for the few dollars he had just cheated off a bunch of sailors. Now Johnny runs the casino for Mundson, like a faithful and obedient friend.

Gilda's introduction into this suddenly creates an unbearable tension that threatens to break up the happy family.  Their past is never totally spelled out, but that is part of the beauty of this story that revels in portents, shades of meaning, dark undercurrents, hints, suggestions, and innuendo that serves to heat up the pressure-cooker of dramatic conflict.  More is said by what the character leave out than what they say.  Even the narration is never willing to be expositional, but instead just adds to the blanket of ambiguity the film takes great pleasure in casting over its characters and its audience.

The only important thing about the shared history of Gilda and Johnny is that now they hate each other, or so they tell each other and themselves repeatedly.  Plot is less important to the point of the film than is the psychological warfare waged by the three characters.  The wire thin line between love and hate is the film's central theme, and everything else is subordinate to that,  cloaked in uncertainty and shadow, so the white hot passions of the central players are highlighted brighter than any of the subplots involving ex-nazi tungsten cartels or the rest of it.

When Mundson questions her about her past with Johnny, Gilda proclaims her hate for him. "Hate can be a very exciting emotion," says Mundson darkly.  Gilda repeats the phrase later to Johnny, but there is a striking contrast in context and subtext when those words are uttered the second time. Mate's camera echoes and enhances that vagueness of meaning, with several scenes of characters speaking in total silhouette or under dark shadows that hide the expressions of faces to obscure their emotions and motives.

There are many twists and turns in this three-way conflict- with murders, faked suicides, and more, as each of the three strive for supremacy over the others.  Johnny is seeking bitter revenge on Gilda for the unhappy way in which they had parted before; MacReady is seeking to preserve his Alpha Male status that he feels has been robbed by Johnny's prior relationship with Gilda; and Gilda seeks to punish Johnny for his wrongful suspicions, which have left her so hurt she is willing to destroy herself to break him down with her.  All three ultimately demonstrate the suicidal tendencies that hate and bitterness invoke in those who cling to them.

Only one person really seems to have an understanding of what's going on, Uncle Pio, the sage old washroom attendant played to terrrific effect by Steven Geray, who that same year starred in a memorable noir of his own, So Dark the Night.  Uncle Pio has these characters pegged from the moment he meets them, as Johnny finds out in their first encounter. A pretty girl passing by catches his eye as he leaves the washroom, but Geray warns him, "she's a harpy."  Startled, Johnny asks, "you can size a person up that quick?  What am I then? A Gentleman or a Peasant?"
"Peasant," Pio replies, following up this assessment with a characteristic raspberry.

The other clear-eyed character in the tale is the police detective Obregon, played by Joseph Calleia.  He says little but keeps his eagle eye on everything that goes on, and seems unsurprised by any of the many plot twists that occur in the course of the story. And between him and Uncle Pio, they play Jiminy Cricket to Johnny's Pinnochio, eventually pointing the way out of his darkness into the supposed happy final moments of the film.

I say "supposed" only because, after sitting through the 110 minutes leading up to that ending, it may be difficult for many viewers to believe the couple is headed to a real happy ending after the credits roll.  Still, following that preceding pitched battle, one can't deny they've earned a respite from it all.  And one can't help hoping things will all work out for them.

Gilda is dynamite, exactly the sort of ten-ton block-buster of passion and drama one expects from prime noir films, and deserves all the high praise it gets.

It is masterfully directed, tightly plotted (especially for a story whose plot is so secondary to its dramatic effectiveness), and well performed -  both by its leads, who hold nothing back in their viceral performances, as well as by its secondary cast, which, in addition to those previously mentioned, includes character bits by Joe Sawyer, Philip Van Zant, and Gerald Mohr, who would go on to portray Raymond Chandler's famous character Philip Marlowe for the radio series that broadcast in 1950-51).  Special props go to Don Douglas for his brief appearance as Tom Langford, which has a surprising range to play with for so short an amount of screen time as he is given.

**** out of 5

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