For modern film audiences, Gilda is primarily known for the mesmerizing sensuality of Rita Heyworth's performance, captured primarily in two iconic moments: The famous shot where her character Gilda snaps her head into frame, her voluptuous black hair beating all men into submission, and the scene where she sensually sings "Put The Blame on Mame" in a nightclub while performing her infamous striptease act, which, in Hays Code-controlled Hollywood, meant it had to be limited to the slow removal of two black gloves.
A lot of the audience who know about Gilda simply through these two moments might expect a fluffy romance that took full advantage of Heyworth's irresistible sex appeal, a-la most of the Marilyn Monroe vehicles during the late 50s. What they get instead is a fairly grim drama about the tragically inevitable self-destruction of a relationship that's build on mistrust and passive aggressive narcissism.
Hollywood journeyman Charles Vidor manages to gracefully blend two disparate genres in a single story: Film noir and melodrama. The film has the mood and tone of a noir: Dark, shadowy cinematography, forlorn voice-over narration by the morally ambiguous male lead, shady crime elements, and a definitive femme fatale who will prove to be the downfall of the protagonist.
Yet Vidor manages to use these elements to study two profoundly broken people whose obsession to control one another becomes their downfall. Yes, perhaps the story ends in a semi-happy ending that should have satisfied the Hays Code, but does anyone who sit through the whole thing actually think Gilda and Johnny (Glenn Ford) would live happily ever after as a well-adjusted couple?
Ford delivers a layered performance as a man who's cool on the outside, but ready to blow on the inside. It's hard to blame him, since he's in the unenviable position of taking care of his criminal boss' promiscuous wife Gilda, who also happens to be his ex-girlfriend. As Gilda, Hayworth also captures a performance that presents the inner and outer duality of the character. On the surface, she's carefree and narcissistic, yet deep inside her behavior is directly linked to her still lingering feelings for Johnny, as well as her empathetic yearning for independence.
As great as the main performances are, the film's true MVP is legendary character actor George Macready's portrayal of Ballin, the cool-headed criminal owner of a casino in Angentina, where pretty much the entire film takes place. With his haunting and gravely voice, as well as his chillingly calm take on the character, Macready creates one of the most fascinating antagonists of old Hollywood. The film also gets extra points for stretching the Hays Code to its limits, finding creative ways to imply a true love triangle, which might also include a love affair between Johnny and Ballin.
Criterion's 1080p Blu-ray presentation of Gilda continues the company's stellar reputation in transferring classic black and white material into the digital HD realm, capturing an excellent amount of clear definition, while maintaining a healthy amount of grain for that film-like look. The extras aren't as expansive this time around, but we get some interesting stuff that includes interviews with Martin Scorsese (One of the greatest filmmakers alive) and Baz Luhrmann (An annoying hack who never made a movie that didn't induce a migraine within the first ten minutes) about Gilda's influence on their work, as well as a vintage documentary on Rita Hayworth.
But the most interesting extra comes in the form of an interview with noir historian Eddie Muller, who goes deep (No pun intended) into the homoerotic aspects of the film. He also makes a good case about why Gilda isn't a noir picture, and why Gilda as a character isn't a femme fatale. Even though I think she fits the archetype, it's hard not to agree with some of Muller's points.
Gilda will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on January 19, 2016