Gilda is a truly classic film from the golden age of cinema. A few years back I was fortunate to be at a special screening celebrating both the 60th anniversary of the film and the 90th birthday of star Glenn Ford. Since then Ford has passed away, taking with him one of the few remaining visceral links to yesterday’s more glamorous age of tinsel and stardust. Fortunately, movies like Gilda will continue to live on for future generations of fans to discover and admire the talents of those who created it.
The film itself is a prime example of Film-Noir at its best with all the elements of the genre fulfilled to near perfection (although the ending’s not strictly noir, it is very satisfying nonetheless). Gilda stars a very young Ford in a star-making role as a man haunted by his past seeking a new life as a tough manager of a South American casino. Ford’s character is down on his luck but soon thrives in the chiaroscuro realm of the underworld under the wing of a corrupt and double-dealing impresario played masterfully by George Macready in his most famous role. All goes well until Ford is introduced to his mentor’s beautiful wife Gilda, a seductive siren with whom Ford has obviously had an involved past. Life becomes complicated when Ford’s ambition becomes entangled with Gilda’s reckless behavior and his boss’s hidden agenda.
Rita Hayworth gives an unparalleled performance as the title character, playing the tempestuous love goddess that devours every man that crosses her path – a character that would become Hayworth’s signature onscreen personae, and for good reason. Hayworth’s very presence in a scene sparkles with vitality and oozes with sex appeal. Even though the film is in black and white, you can virtually see the vibrant red of Rita’s hair as she teasingly tosses it both on stage and in the boudoir. Her smile radiates with loveliness while her eyes pierce your heart with an aching, forlorn hope. And then there’s that dance. Never again will there be such a revealing and tantalizing spectacle captured onscreen as Hayworth slinking across the dance floor in that black silk dress while removing just her gloves!
Although still new to the screen at the time, Ford does a commendable job holding his own. For such a young actor (just 30), Ford gives an amazingly palpable performance as the tortured man who struggles with his inner desires over the woman he simultaneously loves and hates. Each encounter with Gilda is a gut-wrenching experience as he struggles between his overwhelming, contradicting emotions and his heartfelt commitment to the man who gave him his new life, as well as his need to rise above his baser instincts that once worked against him. The result is his sadistic treatment of the object of his torment. But Ford never allows the character to slip into showy hysterics. His is a tangible strength that holds fast even at his character’s weakest moments. A lesser actor would have been merely a costar, as the title credits suggest, but Ford’s performance bears proof that he was to become a great star in his own right.
Simply put, Gilda is a great film representing the very best that Hollywood has ever had to offer. One of the most iconic films of any era, it bursts with snappy dialogue, sexy dance numbers, emotional tension, and noir intrigue. It’s a cliché to say that they just don’t make them like that anymore (one I use much too often myself). However, clichés exist for a reason, and Gilda is a prime example of that old cliché holding true.