75 Years of Film: 1946–Gilda

This is a continuing series in which we look at one film from each year to see how film and the world have changed. For a brief intro and a list of all movies so far, click here.

Yet another famous one we’d never seen, but the boys in Shawshank Redemption made Rita Hayworth sound so desirable we had to give it a look. Plus, it’s a film noir. How’s that for film history?

STORY: Johnny (Glenn Ford) is a man gambling on the streets of Buenos Aires when he’s found by Ballin Mundson (George Macready), owner of a massive casino and head of a much larger illegal scam. He takes a liking to Johnny and Johnny quickly rises to the top. But then Ballin brings home Gilda (Rita Hayworth), a lady from Johnny’s past. The two glare daggers as they each try to play their own games and overcome their unwelcome feelings for one another.

Meh, it’s okay. There’s some great noir work which I’ll discuss in a minute, and plenty of good zingers. There’s also plenty of tension, both sexually and threateningly. The heat between the leads, particularly Gilda, practically radiates through the screen. Sadly, the payoff for all this tension is pretty mild. The film seems to lose track of itself and leaves viewers in the dust, and what we do understand goes on longer than it should. And the final resolutions are achieved far too easily. I’m glad I watched it, but I wouldn’t own it. 3/5 stars.

Ah, film noir. You beautiful, melodramatic, monochromatic thrill ride, you. Noir can be silly, cheesy, and overblown, but often times it’s done right. Art is woven into the genre itself.

Shadows and lighting are heavy staples of film noir. For example, Gilda mostly wears white and stands in brightly-lit areas. She’s the love interest, so she stands out and lights up the dark underworld of illegal gambling. That doesn’t mean she isn’t mischievous as well, but as the film plays out, you find out she’s not as black-hearted as her male counterparts.

Speaking of which, the men mostly wear black, signs of darkness and possibly ill intent. In one scene, Ballin is silhouetted completely in shadow as he wonders about the relationship of his friend and his wife, hints of danger ahead. At one point, even Gilda wears black, when she’s gone off the deep end and tries to defame her cruel husband with a sensual dance for the crowd.

One of film noir’s coolest tricks is the ability to be sexually charged without ever showing nudity or using crass language. During her dance at the end, Rita sings and slowly slips off one glove. That’s all, one glove, but the way she slowly slides the black cloth down her pale arm is beyond suggestive and highly erotic.

Take that to task, Hollywood. You want sexual atmosphere? You don’t always need toplessness, passionate kissing, or skimpy outfits. You just need suggestion.

Film noir was all about the camerawork. I’ve mentioned light and shadow, but even the way the camera moves or doesn’t move tells the story. When Johnny and Gilda first reunite, Ballin is speaking in next to them, but we never see him. We just see the two leads whose eyes never leave each other even though Ballin is still leading the conversation. They see nothing but each other and you can tell by the forced smiles each one would love to strangle the other.

Even props can be a powerful thing in film noir. Ballin has a cane which has a hidden blade inside. It’s a perfect tone-setter, a symbol of deception and hidden motives, and of course it plays a major role in the end.

One one hand, film noir was a kind of multifaceted one-trick pony. It was a way of shooting and storytelling rather than just a genre, and you could really only tell one or two types of stories with it, the kinds with guns, dames, femme fatales, alcohol, and danger.

On the other hand, I’m sorry to see it went out of favor decades ago. It’s a very exciting style and some darn good movies have come out of it. In a Lonely Place and Out of the Past come to mind. However, I think the rise of color pictures ruined it. Light and shadow are so much easier to show in black and white.

I think it was also a sign of the times. As I said before, film noir could get pretty heavy handed, but that was the style of the 1940s. Booming brass was also a thing, remember? That kind of music wouldn’t fly in today’s films and the heavy lights and shadows would probably come across as silly and overblown.

But that’s the fun of this project. Seeing what once was and probably never will be again.

MAJOR EVENTS OF 1946 (source):
Jan 1–First computer finished.
Jan 10–UN assembly meets for the first time.
Mar 5–Churchill famously points out the “iron curtain” being drawn across Europe, foretelling the coming Cold War.
Jun 3–First bikini appears (thanks, France!).
Jun 14–Singer Nat King Cole records “The Christmas Song” (six months early, but whatever).
Jul 26–President Truman orders desegregation of all U.S. forces.
Aug 17–Writer George Orwell publishes Animal Farm in the U.K.
Oct 5–First Cannes Film Festival ends.
Dec 31–President Truman officially declares the end of World War II.

It’s a Wonderful Life–One of my favorites, but I’ve seen it plenty.
The Big Sleep
Song of the South
Make Mine Music

PREVIOUS: 1945–Anchors Aweigh

NEXT: 1947–A Miracle on 34th Street

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