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GILDA: A Subtle Groundbreaker (with the help of Orson Welles) in 1946

 

 Pros: A sultry gangster/spy story with Rita Hayworth at her peak!

 Cons: A rather abrupt, not quite satisfying ending.

The Bottom Line: Rita Hayworth's sexually charged performance, her chemistry with friend Glenn Ford, the influence of Orson Welles and a plot that suggests homosexuality, a triangle, and Nazism make GILDA memorable.

Shot in the last months of 1945, GILDA was in some ways a typical Hollywood product at the end of World War II. The renewed blooming of Rita Hayworth made it a hit which is memorable even now. In the mode of CASABLANCA (1942), it involved a woman, the unhappy wife of one man, who encounters a former love amidst wartime intrigue and espionage in an exotic city, in this case one in South America. 

Rita Hayworth was 26 when she made GILDA. Daughter of a dancing family, she had been put, without much exaggeration, through a mill: Flamenco dancing with her father to help support the family at 13, shortly after thrown into a number of B-movies, such as PADDY O' DAY (1935), under her real name of Rita Casino. Her career flamed up after she married a much older promoter, Ed Judson, when she was 18. It was Judson, before he sank from her life, who found the right shade of red for her hair and had her lioness mane shaved a couple of inches back on her forehead, a process she had to undergo regularly for the rest of her career. After strong supporting performances in such films as Columbia's ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (Hawks, 1939), and (stealing the picture) in BLOOD AND SAND (Mamoulian, 1941) for 20th Century Fox, she was seen as a rising star. 

Her easy sexuality in a sheer negligee, kneeling in her bed, for a Life Magazine cover photo in late 1941, shocking at the time, made her the lead in a new U.S. Armed Forces phenomenon, "the pin-up photo," and her marriage to "boy genius" Orson Welles, after jilting "magnificent hunk" Victor Mature, was a press sensation in 1943. She was a mother, rested, and nearly through that marriage to Welles, when she followed COVER GIRL (Charles Vidor, 1944) and TONIGHT AND EVERY NIGHT (Saville, 1945) with GILDA. 

Like many a successful movie (think again of CASABLANCA made three years earlier), GILDA was not thought to be anything special when it was shot. Glenn Ford, the film's hero, was a second choice. The screenplay, attributed to one Marion Parsonett, was lavishly re-written by Orson Welles and, later, by Rita's friend Producer /Editor Virginia Van Upp (who in later years was called upon to slash Welles' THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI and TOUCH OF EVIL). 

Director Charles Vidor contributed an emphasis on Rita's hair. At various crucial points, he told her to touch her hair or brush it back with her hand to stress certain emotions. The most extreme example of this theme is a reaction shot in which she quickly snaps her head back throwing her crowning glory entirely off her face: unforgettable! And, of course, pay attention to how she uses her hair in the famous "Put the Blame on Mame" song and dance. 

The plot is immeasurably enhanced by the presence of George Macready, master villain, he of the long saber scar across his cheek, who with his trusty sword cane aids  a gambler/grifter,  Johnny Farrell (Ford), in a fight with thugs on the docks of Buenos Aires at the start of the film. His appreciation of Johnny Farrell's plight verges on snake-like homoeroticism. Macready, Baron Ballin Mundson in the picture, is a gangster casino owner involved in smuggling Nazies out of Europe into South America -- think, Welles' THE STRANGER (1946), perhaps LADY FROM SHANGHAI even more so.  After the fight, he hires Ford to provide security for the club and to be a kind of majordomo, overseeing among other of the Baron's possessions, his new American wife. 

 Baroness Mundson (Hayworth) and Johnny (Ford) are surprised when they meet because, in a wild coincidence, they are former lovers back in the United States. Revolted by Macready's saturnine cruelty, they are soon back in each other's arms, fueling the triangular plot until its climax.

A running subplot involves police-gangster-Nazi cat and mouse, and gives an almost starring role to Macready (an old Welles' theatrical colleague) but also small parts to refugees from Welles' destroyed Mercury Unit at RKO, such as Joseph Calleia and Philip Van Zandt.

My one complaint about the film is that its denouement is perfunctory, as if they ran out of time or script, or trimmed the subplot,  which may just be what happened. 

Nevertheless, if you want to see a legend at her ripe peak, see GILDA. Rita Hayworth's personal life and professional career would be in decline from here on. 

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NOTE for the RED ROOM Edition: I happened to see GILDA this evening, on TCM, for the first time in years.  Perhaps because of passing time and events, the picture's excaped Nazies subplot seemed newly relevant and prophetic: Baron Munson (Macready) has a contractual agreement with Fascist industrialists to sequester deeds for strategic metals and materials.  The plan is that, after the War, they will advance an international "Cartel" to exploit these properties. [As I've written in the past, my belief, growing up, was that a prime reason for our fighting World War II was to defeat and dismantal such Cartels.  Tungsten, vital in the manufacture of electronic products, is a specific example that Baron Munson's partners discuss.]  During the many occasions I've seen GILDA since 1946, this factor did not jump out at me.  But of course, that was before President George W. Bush announced "The New World Order," mostly before Globalism, 911, and our public, wholehearted embracement of "Corporatism."  [-- See, Mussolini's definition, my friends.]