Gilda (1946) begins with the formation of a friendship between two men that practically implores us to read it as much more. Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is an American hustler abroad. He’s down on his luck and his luck has found him all the way down in Buenos Aires—and that’s about it for backstory. He’s rescued from a lethal hold-up by casino owner Ballin Mundson (George Macready) and Mundson’s “little friend,” a walking stick whose foreskin pulls back to reveal a long silver blade. “You must lead a gay life,” Farrell says to Mundson, and believe me, a contemporary interpretation of the lingo is not inappropriate.
Mundson hires Farrell as... what exactly? Let’s say his right-hand-man. Farrell is fiercely loyal. How loyal? Mundson comes home from a holiday with Gilda (Rita Hayworth), his new bride and, it turns out, Farrell’s old flame. Gilda, a singer and dancer who’s every hair-flip is shot through with more sex than the deftest lap-dance, is allure incarnate, and clearly married to Mundson—a peeper, a wealthy creep who buys his allies, and a monstrous control freak—for reasons other than love. Gilda still wants Farrell, but Farrell’s drive to stay true to Mundson is enormous. What’s going on here? Is this a love triangle? A love square? Who are we meant to identify with? Farrell’s our narrator, but he’s cagey, opaque, repressed, maybe crazy. Gilda’s captivating, but astonishingly brazen for 1946. The film’s key scene: Gilda performing ‘Put the Blame on Mame,’ a song about scapegoating feminine sexual power, and ending the number by inviting the lust-crazed audience to take the stage and take off her dress.
Directed by Charles Vidor, written by Jo Eisinger and Marion Parsonnet from a story by E.A. Ellington, and shot by Rudolph Maté, who would go on to direct the essential low-budget noir D.O.A. (1950), Gilda is almost singular in its fusion of high glamour and thorny, dark sexuality, a cautionary tale about possession and self-denial with a tidy resolution that much more striking for being implausible. And for all these reasons and more, it’s also a superb choice for the next film in Metro Cinema’s excellent film noir series.