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Dangerous women: Steamy Gilda launches Film Noir series with a twist

Rita Hayworth in Gilda
Time and again, Gilda sexually taunts Johnny (Glenn Ford) by, ahem, flirting with total strangers.
MFAH film series Femme Fatales The Women of Film Noir Aug. 2013 Rita Hayworth in Gilda
Gilda (Rita Hayworth) at her most va-va-voom voluptuous, whose brazen naughtiness is evident from the moment she first appears on screen
MFAH film series Femme Fatales The Women of Film Noir Aug. 2013 Gilda
A scene from the 1946 movie, Gilda, with Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth
Rita Hayworth in Gilda
MFAH film series Femme Fatales The Women of Film Noir Aug. 2013 Rita Hayworth in Gilda
MFAH film series Femme Fatales The Women of Film Noir Aug. 2013 Gilda
AuthorPhoto_Joe Leydon_head shot_column mug_USE THIS

The funny thing about film noir is, if you asked 10 different cinema scholars to define the term – you’d likely get 10 different definitions of film noir. No kidding: Even writer-director Paul Schrader, one of the most knowledgeable of noir scholars, has acknowledged just how difficult it is to pin down the particulars.

"Almost every critic has his own definition of film noir,” Schrader wrote in a seminal 1971 essay, “and a personal list of film titles and dates to back it up."

The four titles included in Femme Fatales: The Women of Film Noir – the retrospective series that kicks off Friday and Sunday at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston – indicate the diversity and disparity of elements to be found in movies that most critics and academics consider to be “true” noir.

 Ironically, the people who made defining classics of film noir didn’t fully realize what they were doing until French critics told them so long after the fact.  

But be forewarned: You’ll note I wrote “most critics and academics,” not all. There doubtless are noir purists who would insist that Gilda (screening at 7 p.m. Friday, 5 p.m. Sunday) actually is what film historian Jon Tuska defines as a film gris — basically, a film noir “spoiled” by a happy ending.

(Of course, there are purists of a different sort who would just as vehemently insist that the MFAH series should be titled Femmes Fatale, not Femme Fatales. But as Sir Basil Exposition would advise:  I suggest you don't worry about those things and just enjoy yourself.)

For the benefit of those who tuned in late: Film noir  (literally, “dark film”) is a term used to describe a distinctive type of thriller — loosely defined, but instantly recognizable — that reached its peak of popularity in the decade following World War II, when hundreds of Hollywood features combined crime melodrama, abnormal psychology, sexual insecurity, Cold War paranoia and bizarrely lit, nightmarish camerawork to varying degrees.

Heavily influenced by German Expressionism, and frequently directed or photographed by European émigrés who fled the Nazi juggernaut, films noir (OK with that, purists?) are notorious for tell-tale visual hallmarks — stark black-and-white imagery, crowded compositions within frames, rain-washed streets, lazily spinning overhead fans, slats of light spilling through Venetian blinds into smoke-filled rooms — that continue to be evoked in everything from made-for-video B-movies to ultra-stylish TV spots for expensive toiletries.

But the darkness in a true noir isn’t so much a visual scheme as a state of mind, one best summed up by the hapless of protagonist of an indisputably noir film, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945): “Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.”

Hollywood heyday

Ironically, the people who made defining classics of film noir didn’t fully realize what they were doing until French critics told them so long after the fact. During the Hollywood heyday of  noir — the 1940s and ‘50s, when tarnished heroes and femmes fatale sauntered through the shadows of bleak urban landscapes — filmmakers such as Robert Aldrich (whose Kiss Me Deadly will be shown Aug. 23 and 25 at MFAH), Jean Negulesco (Road House, Aug. 16 and 18 at MFAH) and George Marshall (The Blue Dahlia, Aug. 10 and 11 at MFAH) didn't know they were creating and sustaining a unique movie genre. Nor did they think of their moody movies as anything other than conventional (albeit stylish) thrillers.

And if you’d been hanging around a studio commissary back then, you certainly wouldn’t have heard one director tell another: "Yeah, I'm wrapping up that Western with Cooper, then I'm doing this film noir with Bogart.”

It wasn't until French critics much later coined the term film noir  that audiences became fully aware of the qualities that distinguish a film as really, truly and deeply noir. As Ephraim Katz notes in The Film Encyclopedia, film noir “characteristically abounds with night scenes, both interior and exterior, with sets that suggest dingy realism, and with lighting that emphasizes deep shadows and accents the mood of fatalism. The dark tones and the tense nervousness are further enhanced by the oblique choreography of the action and the doom-laden compositions and camera angles.”

Heroes as well as villains in film noir are “cynical, disillusioned and often insecure loners, inextricably bound to the past and unsure and apathetic about the future.”

Va-va-va voom 

The latter description certainly fits Johnny Farrell, the scruffy expat gambler played by Glenn Ford, during the opening scenes of Gilda. When we first meet Johnny, he’s slumming on the mean streets of mid-’40s Buenos Aires, cheating at illegal dice games – and not doing such a great job of disguising his chicanery. Indeed, Johnny is on the verge of being beaten by a sharper-than-expected sore loser when spiffy-dressing casino owner Balin Mundson (George Macready) passes by. Sporting an air of bemused authority, and wielding a blade-tipped cane that is equal parts phallic symbol and running joke, Mundson quickly dispatches the troublesome ruffian – and winds up offering Johnny a job as his personal assistant.

 Cut to Gilda, clad in a slinky dressing gown, flipping her hair and flashing an impudent smile as her face rises into the frame. Her coyly quizzical reply: “Me?” 

We learn just how personal this assistance will be when Mundson introduces Johnny to his hot young wife, Gilda (Rita Hayworth at her most va-va-voom voluptuous), whose brazen naughtiness is evident from the moment she first appears on screen. Before entering the master bedroom with Johnny in tow, Mundson calls out: “Are you decent?”

Cut to Gilda, clad in a slinky dressing gown, flipping her hair and flashing an impudent smile as her face rises into the frame. Her coyly quizzical reply: “Me?”

But that smile fades fast from Gilda’s face when she sees Johnny, who in turn appears every bit as unpleasantly surprised.

Right away, it’s obvious – if not to Mundson, then to any reasonably sentient person watching the film – that these two crazy kids were something of an item not so terribly long ago. And while we never learn all the messy details about their break-up, there’s no doubt that the affair ended badly. Which, of course, makes it more than a little awkward for both of them when Mundson – who’s either spectacularly clueless, or sadistically control-freakish, or both – gives Johnny the task of “keeping an eye” on his hot-to-trot spouse while he tends to business concerns.

Nothing good comes of this.

Psychosexual tension

Gilda – smoothly directed by Charles Vidor (who previously worked with Hayworth on Cover Girl, and later re-teamed with her and Ford on The Loves of Carmen) and photographed by Rudolph Mate (who went on to direct the classic film noir D.O.A.) – has something to do with Mundson’s efforts to maintain an illegal monopoly on tungsten, and something else to do with German investors who are unhappy about their dealings with the casino owner. But the primary focus of the film is the perversely psychosexual tension between Johnny and Gilda, who do their damnedest to convince themselves, and each other, that they hate each other’s guts, even as they generate enough erotic tension to generate electricity for thriving suburb.

At one point, Johnny – serving as the movie’s narrator, a role often filled by film noir protagonists – bitterly proclaims: “I hated her so, I couldn’t get her out of my mind for a minute.” At another point, Gilda snaps: “I hate you so much that I would even destroy myself to take you down with me. I hate you so much, I think I’m going to die from it.”

Yeah, sure.

Like many other noir melodramas, Gilda manages a shrewd end-run around restrictions dictated by the Production Code through scenes that are cleverly implicit rather than graphically explicit – thereby making the illicit behavior of key characters seem all the more depraved.

Time and again, Gilda sexually taunts Johnny by, ahem, flirting with total strangers whenever Mundson’s not around. Johnny: “Doesn’t it bother you at all that you’re married?” Gilda: “What I want to know is – does it bother you?”

(Even Mundson can’t help eventually noticing that there’s something going on between his attractive wife and his trusted employee. When he sees the audacious outfit she plans to wear for a carnival celebration, he inquires, only half-jokingly: “I see you’re going to carry a whip. Have you warned Johnny, so he could also arm himself?”)

It all leads up to the movie’s most famous scene, when Gilda – more determined than ever to humiliate Johnny – does a steamy on-stage song-and-dance rendition of “Put the Blame on Mame” while hormonally inflamed male members of her audience hoot and holler their full-throated approval. Johnny, not surprisingly, gives her performance a thumbs-down review.

As I said: Gilda has what might be considered – by noir standards, at least – a happy ending. But only if you don’t think too much about it. Because, really, it’s difficult to believe there’s too much happily-ever-aftering in store for this damned duo.

To put it another way: Can you really imagine a lifetime of domestic bliss for the characters played by Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious (a movie released, not incidentally, the same year as this one) after the closing credits?

If not – well, then maybe then you’ll agree with me that Gilda is genuine, 24-karat noir, in all the ways that matter most.

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