Inspiration: Gilda

Gilda, directed by Charles Vidor, is most famous for Rita Hayworth’s quip, and here I paraphrase, “My problem is that men go to bed with Gilda, but wake up to Rita Hayworth.” It has a reputation as a film noir, with Hayworth in the role of the femme fatale, though it’s really a love story. With echoes of Casablanca, which came out four years earlier, Gilda is set in exotic South America (supposedly Argentina), feeding into the Latin American craze of the 1940s. It’s told from the perspective of Glenn Ford’s character, who serves at a casino as a right-hand man for the casino owner. His boss shows up one day with his new wife, who turns out to be Ford’s former lover, Gilda.

In my pre-teen years, living in Brazil, I used to watch old Hollywood films obsessively (especially Hitchcock)–they’d air around midnight, and I’d stay up with my sister and watch them almost every night while on summer break. (She’d make little ham and cheese sandwiches and we’d snack on them.) Somehow I missed Gilda, and didn’t come to it until a decade or so later, when I was already living in the United States. I saw it on cable, one morning, around 8 a.m., and experienced it in the midst of an apprenticeship on the craft of screenwriting. I was startled by the fact that the film wasn’t dated at all–the dialogue is fresh and evocative, and full of layers without being heavy-handed. It moves incredibly swiftly, and there’s not a wasted shot.

The conflict in the film comes from the fact that though Gilda is now married to Ballin, the casino owner, she still loves Ford’s character. The three of them are stuck in this impossible situation, especially since Ford feels great loyalty toward his boss, and his boss trusts him implicitly. What interested me is that the film takes pains to look at this situation from all three sides of the triangle. In one of my favorite scenes in the film, Gilda and Ballin talk about Johnny in their bedroom, and Vidor shoots them almost entirely in the dark. Neither party wants the other to know how much they know, but it is clear their relationship will never be the same. Their faces remain inaccessible to each other, with only their voices to navigate that moment for them.

Vidor’s use of silhouette and darkness is brilliant throughout the film, even the way he uses Ballin’s back on the mise-en-scene. He often stages the composition so that we see the scene from Ballin’s point of view, with his back turning half the screen entirely dark, contrasted with the light of the other characters’ faces. It creates a sense of unease, as it looks like Gilda and Johnny are often looking straight into the darkness. (His back also becomes important at the very end.)

Gilda is a great film, smart and layered, with characters who behave in unexpected ways but staying completely in character. It also turns downright Jamesian toward the third act, with its Wings of the Dove-inspired necrophiliac subtext. My one qualm with the film, though, is that it is a little too much about Johnny’s character, who turns into a bit of a brute toward the end. Perhaps Max Ophuls’ could’ve told it from Gilda’s perspective, and maybe taken away some of its male gaze and misogyny (Johnny largely blames Gilda’s “infidelity” on her, and Johnny’s homosocial bond with Ballin is at times stronger than his attraction to Gilda).

Still, the greatness of the film is undeniable, and Rita Hayworth plays Gilda like there’s no tomorrow–her Gilda is an incredibly strong and willful character, and Hayworth is an expert at revealing the inner layers of frustration and longing underneath her self-assured appearance. Her Gilda is a woman about to explode. My editor once noted the “classic love story” at the heart of This Burns My Heart, and it is movies like Gilda that showed me how powerful that set-up can be.

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