Gilda is the rare movie that you can love and appreciate in spite of the fact that it leaves more questions than answers.
That said, it has a lot of elements working in its favor, particularly the actors.
There's nothing I can say about Rita Hayworth that hasn't been said a thousand times before; she is stunningly beautiful and very capable in handling the contrasts between Gilda's dark emotional undercurrents and her oft-blinding brightness.
But I think Glenn Ford is the real coup here; when we meet him, he is characterized by an open, honest face and an easy wit, despite the fact that he's obviously a hustler. His blank physical appearance serves the chameleon character well; we see Johnny transform and distort in every direction possible as he faces growing success, power, torment and eventually redemption.
The direction was also startling; Gilda is not bathed in darkness as you might expect, but Vidor is careful and precise in his use of shadows and camera angles. There's very little that's showy, but everything works. Not to mention the pornographic camera gaze on Rita Hayworth's show stopping number; has there ever been a more erotic glove removal?
The film is also very clearly structured, which is in direct contrast to the seemingly incomplete story; we never do find out about the truth of Gilda and Johnny. That it is so well put together prevents the audience from feeling cheated; their past is something for us to put together in our imagination, and I bet what we imagine will always be ten times worse than the truth.
CONSIDERING THE HOMO-EROTIC
Critics and scholars get hung up with the question of original intent. But I would argue that's irrelevant in this case; we can only judge what appears to us on screen.* Even if you ignore the scary-comic scenes with Johnny, Ballin, and Ballin's little friend (a giant stick with the power of piercing!), there's considerable textual evidence to support the reading of homosexual leanings between the two male leads.
Let's look at Ballin. He is never represented as an altruist, and Johnny has no demonstrable skills when they first meet. So why invite him to his posh establishment? And what was a mover and a shaker like Ballin doing in the dingy alleyway in the first place, an alley full of hucksters and hustlers? It's not unreasonable to assume that he was trolling for sex, or something like it.
Later, once Johnny gets himself hired by Ballin, Ballin presents his first and most important rule: no women. He wants Johnny for himself. This clearly goes both ways. When Ballin returns from his trip, and announces his new wife, Johnny turns hateful and distrustful even before he knows that it's Gilda. The homoerotic angle adds a whole layer to the early antagonism between the two; he hates her in equal parts for coming between himself and Ballin, for showing up in his life at all, and for making him love her.
That none of these elements supersede the others perhaps reduces the relevance of the past relationship between Gilda and Johnny; what we are concerned with is how Johnny's conflicting desires play out now in Argentina. Youthful indiscretions are nothing but fuel to the fire; we don't need to know the facts to appreciate that it was heinous enough to mutate these two characters into shells of their former selves.
When Johnny steps into the role of Ballin, he becomes Ballin entirely; he absorbs his cruelty and sadomasochism as completely as he absorbs his penchant for shady business dealing. And that darkens his relationship with Gilda even further.
What makes the second act so compelling is that having done every thing they can to deny their love for one another, they can no longer resist its pull. And giving in warps them both; it gives Gilda a sense of security that she is incapable of recognizing as false, as she's never experienced the real thing. And it gives Johnny a vehicle to exercise his newfound power and sadism. He can't deal with his desire for her, cannot even act on it, so he chooses to torment her in every way possible. Gilda is powerless as a woman, as an individual, as a lover. Their mutual obsession twists them both horribly out of shape.
These are not the emotions of children at play, no matter what Ballin believes of Gilda. And while the movie wants us to believe it's about sex; it's equally about power. Ballin has all of it until he's dead, then Johnny inherits it. And Gilda has nothing but her sexuality.
*I say it's irrelevant, but that didn't stop me from researching. And I found this:
“Women in Film Noir”, Edited by E.Anne Kaplan, chapter 8, footnote #3.
“According to Ford, the homosexual angle was obvious to them at the time; they could see the implications in the relationship between the two men in the early part of the film- nothing stated, just mood.”
From John Kobal: “The Time, the Place, the Girl; Rita Hayworth."
FEMINIST STREET CRED
Gilda is distinctive in that it's the first picture in Hollywood with a female screenwriter, female producer, and topline female star.
-First Rita Hayworth movie (woohoo!)
-First classic film noir (shocking, I know!)