GILDA, THE SIREN played by Rita Hayworth, provokes obsession in everyone she encounters.
Gilda, the film, has a similar effect. “I was completely perplexed by the picture,” says Martin Scorsese, who saw it aged 11, on this Criterion Blu-ray’s extras. “I had no idea what was happening… but I kept watching it again and again.” Can it be a coincidence he went on to make his own tale of a warped love triangle in 1995’s
Casino? Baz Luhrmann also recounts how the movie got a grip on him: he modelled Nicole Kidman’s Moulin
Rouge! hairdo on Gilda’s locks. Once experienced, it’s not easily forgotten.
Aptly enough, the film was born out of infatuation. Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures, was smitten with Hayworth and ordered a vehicle to showcase her charms. Hence this tale in which small-time crook Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) gets hired to run a shady Buenos Aires casino, only to find his new boss (George Macready) has married his old flame. Hayworth is ridiculously sexy throughout, from her hair-tossing introductory close-up to the precisionchoreographed song and dance. The wardrobe budget was astronomical: she wears 29 costumes over 110 minutes, with two of the furs alone costing $100,000.
But there’s a lot more to Gilda than glamour. It shares many of the ingredients of Casablanca, with its exotic locale, old lovers reunited and even a gaggle of sinister Germans, yet peculiar psychological undercurrents mark it out as unique. Macready’s Ballin Mundson is the obvious villain: he creepily calls his sword-cane his “little friend” and at one point dons a cape. But Johnny is arguably worse. His love has curdled into hate. It’s a film about the ultimate on-off relationship, and how romance can warp into something dark and destructive.
Hayworth was later to rue the effect the movie had on her life, complaining that, “Men go to bed with Gilda, but wake up with me.” But if the performance was detrimental to her happiness, it has made countless viewers (including Red and friends in The Shawshank Redemption) sit up straight in the decades since. It’s an astonishingly nuanced turn, arcing from sultriness to vulnerability, best exemplified by her two renditions of Put The Blame On Mame. The first is a warm, guitar-strumming lullaby; the second a drunken striptease in defiance of Johnny’s domination. No wonder little Marty’s mind was blown. NICK DE SEMLYEN
Above: “Let the drinking games commence.” Below: Ford and Hayworth took to catalogue modelling like pros.