BFI Classics: Gilda

Author: Melvyn Stokes

If film noir requires a femme fatale, then is Gilda (1946) a film noir or not? Why did the censors never comment on the obviously gay relationship between Johnny and Ballin? What does Put the Blame on Mame really mean? And what does the transformation of Margarita Cansino from Spanish/Latin American dancer into American movie star Rita Hayworth have to do with anything?

Melvyn Stokes’ lively essay about Gilda’s casting, production and politics answers all these questions and more. Stokes examines the financial and political motivations behind Gilda’s Argentine setting and the film’s own evolution, from a star vehicle (for Rita Hayworth) released to a luke-warm critical reception, to a much-studied and much-loved bona fide classic.

Along the way, Stokes takes in the peripheral, off-camera events that informed the film’s mood and performances. For example, Hayworth had to take a day off – just one – when the collapse of her marriage to Orson Welles was announced, and this no doubt affected her performance as an entertainer trapped in a crumbling relationship with an ambitious egotist.

The film’s publicity machine tapped into the way that gender roles were slowly beginning to shift in the wake of the Second World War. In particular, for every publicity still released showing Hayworth grovelling at Glenn Ford’s feet, there is another one depicting Ford on his knees before Hayworth.

There’s a lot of other background context provided here – social, political, psychological (specifically the influence of Freudianism), feminist and racial – but Stokes’ great control of his material means that this always adds to, rather than detracts from, his discussion of the film.

Those hoping for a fresh insight or radically new interpretation of Gilda will not find much to satisfy them here – Stokes raises the intriguing argument that if Gilda is indeed a film noir, then the necessary femme fatale role is inhabited not by Gilda herself but by Johnny and his de-stabilised masculinity, but he does not explore this in any great depth and quickly moves on.

That said, this is still highly recommended to fans of classic cinema.

Clare Moody

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