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Gilda (Charles Vidor) 1946
Gilda is the film noir that’s most notorious because it cemented the sex symbol status of its star Rita Hayworth, which is all the more impressive when looking at its sleazy environs. They seem more conducive to grit than glamour, but there’s no denying Hayworth’s presence in the titular role. Set in Argentina, this set-bound drama becomes in its second half a modern Rapunzel story, with its longhaired star locked in a prison of sexual frustration. It’s to the star’s credit that she never for a moment lets the audience forget about her carnal desires. She’s oppressed by two men, each spurned on by his jealousy of the other, but her predicament doesn’t elicit audience sympathy so much as frustration that she might be in love with one of them exclusively. Gilda is at her most sexual when she’s asking a roomful of horny “gentlemen” to help her with zipper, even though the brain tells you there’s a sick sort of pathos at work in the scene. With either of the men, she seems too restrained to really glow. The constraints of marriage cramp her style and that makes her dangerous. As an actress and a screen presence, Hayworth has a lot of love, and sex appeal, to give. For her to squander such riches on one suitor seems a tremendous waste.
In most film noir, the underbelly of moral corruption is so undeniable that it becomes visible in the visual elements of the film and the behavior of the characters. Here, despite a subplot regarding a shady tungsten monopoly, that corruption stems precisely from Gilda’s sexual potential. The dressed up, but still obviously artificial sets that the action unfolds on only reinforces the notion that Gilda’s sexual freedom is only illusory. She’s punished in the movie because she threatens to burst the lid off of the sensual repression. Charles Vidor’s workmanlike direction is smart, but not smart enough to realize that it’s Gilda’s pathos that is the most interesting here. He gives us the perspective of a slick but shallow protagonist (Glenn Ford) instead of a more thorough examination of the biggest mystery in the movie (though the Production Code might have made a look at Gilda’s motives impossible). Ford provides voiceover narration, and even though it’s a staple in the genre, it feels especially turgid and obligatory here. To complain that Hayworth’s co-stars don’t exhibit as much energy as she does in Gilda seems almost absurd though. Her presence here is so indomitable that it’s almost surprising that Vidor found it necessary to bother putting other actors on the screen at all.
* * * 1/2