Gilda, 1946, Columbia Pictures, starring Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford, George Macready. Directed by Charles Vidor. B&W, 110 minutes.
Take a plot with high-stakes illegal gambling and hints of a past, potentially explosive, romance between a man and his bosses’ new wife, combine it with some of the finest photography of its time — still noteworthy today — then add Rita Hayworth’s sensual performance, along with Glenn Ford’s ability to dramatically underplay a role, and you’ve got what makes Gilda a captivating film, start to finish.
Set in Argentina, the tale begins with Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford), whose bad gambling habits get him in trouble more than once. He’s saved from a robbery attempt by Ballin Mundson (George Macready), who directs him to a local high-end casino, but warns him not to try any of his tricks there. Farrell ignores the advice, of course, and ends up in the casino owner’s office after being caught cheating at blackjack. The owner is Mundson, and Farrell cleverly convinces him to take him in as a right-hand man.
Soon, Johnny Farrell is running the joint while Mundson travels. On one trip, however, he comes back with a surprise — his new wife, Gilda (Rita Hayworth).
It’s clear to Mundson that Farrell and Gilda have more than met before, yet both deny knowing each other. Gilda, for her part, enjoys the power she feels she has as the boss’s wife, and taunts & torments Farrell mercilessly, fueling the fire of his rage — and likely passion — for her.
In the meantime, Mundson has other worries. A tungsten cartel he fronted during the war is looking to take back control, something he’s reluctant to return. Bring in the Argentinian secret police, a few Nazis, and murder by moonlight, and the rest of the plot unfolds to its dramatic end.
The film is known for two dance numbers by Hayworth, “Put the Blame on Mame” and “Amado Mio,” mesmerizing both for her performance and the gowns she wore. Notably talented and beautiful, Hayworth, to borrow from the title of another of her films, never was lovelier.
This was a breakthrough role for Ford, who had been in Hollywood for several years but had played only lesser parts. His low-key performance allowed for Hayworth to enchant while never undermining his leading man status. The chemistry between the two was always evident, but the reigning factor in how deeply we believe the intensity of their feelings may have been their skill and deftness at portraying their respective characters.
While romance is central to the plot, there is also intrigue in the nightlife surrounding the casino and the chase with the top villains of the day, the Nazis, in their post-war attempts at regaining what power they could.
A story of strong-willed lovers who fight to conquer their own worst demons in turbulent Argentina, Gilda is a view into a magnetic world that perhaps only exists on film, which is just as well, because it’s the fantasy we seek, not the reality.