I had the pleasure, a while back, of attending a screening of Gilda being hosted by the Irish Film Institute. The black-and-white forties noir-tinted thriller is somewhat warmly regarded among film historians, and one of those movies you label as a “classic” without any real hesitation. However, as I emerged from the cinema, I found myself wondering how such a film would be received were it released today. I honestly wonder what we would make of these “classics” if they didn’t have the word “classic” to hide behind.
I should begin with the observation that I didn’t hate the film, I just thought it was rather disappointing. Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth do their best with the material they have, but I think the movie doesn’t necessarily work well as a whole. However, all I could hear was praise from people wandering out of the screening pondering why Hollywood doesn’t make movies like that any more. To be absolutely frank, if Hollywood did, I suspect they’d meet a cold reception from critics and audiences alike.
Let’s look at the film as it’s structured. It’s essentially the story of three individuals. Glenn Ford is Johnny Farrell, the charming rogue. George Macready is Ballin Mundson, a casino owner who keeps a knife in his cane. Rita Hayworth is Gilda, Johnny’s old lover and Ballin’s new wife who proceeds to drive a wedge between the two men, as each tries to decide how the other two fit together. In fairness, the triangle works well – with the movie unafraid to play with the obvious homoerotic subtext to the point where it practically becomes homoerotic supertext. Johnny is so protective of Ballin and his response to Gilda so jealous that it’s hard not pick up on the undertones. However, unfortunately, there’s everything else.
Ballin is apparently involved in some shady business dealings. These are revealed over the course of the film to be related to the Second World War in a manner that isn’t exactly developed in the most coherent manner. Instead, the plot tends to rear its head once or twice an act. Anyway, two Germans try to strong-arm Ballin into returning something he took from the Nazi government. Let’s ignore that any German officials coming to bother him in Buenos Aires would probably do well to keep a low profile, and focus on Ballin’s response. He kills one of them. In a crowded room. With the other nearby. In front of lots of witnesses. So he has to leave the country.
However, Ballin then fakes his own death by rigging a plane crash and parachuting to waiting dingy. Again, we’ll ignore the fact that none of the police officers (let alone his business partner) who saw the plane crash didn’t see the parachute. And we’ll ignore the clunky exposition that Ballin’s going to lay low for a while before he returns – maybe he likes to make polite conversation with minions, I don’t know. However, nobody seems to care that there was no body (or evidence of a body) recovered from the crash. These are plot holes that, to be honest, can be glossed over.
That said, Ballin literally reappears for two minutes at the end to threaten the two lovers on the verge of happiness because… well, we don’t know why he’s back now. Maybe it’s just awkwardly good timing. At least this will provide for a nice emotional confrontation and a chance for the romantic plot to resolve itself with some firm and concrete closure and character development? Instead, Ballin rambles for a little while like a second-rate Bond villain, leaves his cane lying around and then gets stabbed in the back… by the movie’s comic relief.
So, to put it in perspective, Ballin disappears from the movie and comes back to confront his best friend and his wife as they’re about to elope – and he’s killed by the dude who works in his bathrooms. Neither Gilda nor Johnny get a chance to confront him, and there’s no sense that either of them have vanquished his specter looming large over their relationship. He just shows up because he spotted an opening for a last-minute plot hurdle to throw in front of the movie’s happy couple. And then promptly gets killed, so the two can live happily ever after… without anybody really overcoming any of the interpersonal dynamics and hurdles at all. Which completely ignores the movie’s entire characterisation of the dynamic between the three, but we’ll come to that.
If a modern movie were plotted like that, we’d throw out the word “trite.” We’d dismiss the sheer volume of coincidence required to get the characters from one point to another as lazy writing. Truth be told, we’d be entirely right to. But we don’t do that, because this film is a “classic.” Never mind that it’s as awkwardly constructed as, say, Green Lantern and as generic in its understanding of male-female relationships as The Ugly Truth. Hell, any thriller that took the time to include three musical numbers and a pointless ten-minute trip out of the country that ends up exactly back where we were before would – fairly, I think – be dismissed as “self-indulgent.”
The movie even has severe problems with plotting and characterisation. Near the end, we’re informed that the other German has been arrested, and he’s told the police everything. Again, we’ll gloss over the fact that it’s pretty damn convenient that at this point the German is caught (as Johnny is at his lowest ebb) and wonder why the hell the German would talk. I assume he represents the German government in some capacity, in which case his arrest would have sparked an international incident, and he’d just keep his mouth shut and wait. Alternatively, he could be a Nazi – in which case he now has no legal right to the papers in the first place, and his own future problems dwarf any cartel investigation. But that’s not my problem.
A local cop gets all in Johnny’s face about this “cartel” business, an illegal operation Johnny didn’t even start. The man insists he’s “a good cop” and maybe he is. When he arrives, mere seconds after the final confrontation with Ballin (yep, there’s never a cop when you need one), he then covers up a murder. This is a guy who, not ten minutes ago, was getting all morally righteous about a syndicate. What makes the moment even dumber is the fact that he refers to it as “justifiable homicide” before wishing the happy couple on their way. So is he going to cover up or declare it justifiable homicide?
Look, the plucky comedy relief is probably going to get off, but it’s still kinda a big deal and Johnny and Gilda would do well to remain in the country to testify in his defense. I’m not even 100% certain from the cop’s dialogue what he’s going to do, but he implies he’ll cover up this murder. However, in the same quote, he illustrates that there’s no reason to cover it up, because the killing was self-defense. No wonder this police officer is “a good cop” – because he’s probably too dumb to be corrupt one, to be frank. He literally serves as the movie’s fairy godmother, showing up to assure us in the most mundane manner possible that there’s going to be a happy ending. Not because our leads have earned it, or anything like that – because the film’s ending and the audience should leave with a smile.
I know that the forties are so far away that they may as well be the Dark Ages, but it’s also hard to take the key relationship presented in the film especially seriously. I do like the first half of the film, which focuses on all three, but once Ballin leaves the picture, things get skewed. The idea that a man would marry a widow only to lock her away where no other man may have her, out of misplaced loyalty to a friend he considers dead, is a very gothic premise. One could see a pitch-perfect horror based around the idea. And, to be frank, the film points out that both leads are “terribly” in love with one another – their relationship isn’t meant to functional. She insists on bringing men home to tease the object of her affection, and he locks her away from the world. The movie, in fairness, points out the obvious: this is not a healthy relationship.
However, in the last moments of the film, they both seemingly come to realise that they love one another. I’m not sure how or why it happened, other than we’d had an hour-and-a-half of plot and it was time to wrap up. There’s even a bit where a tertiary character tells the lead that they’ve made a terrible mistake about the love they’ve rejected – that ridiculously trite “third act romantic misunderstanding” that we love to slate in modern romantic comedies. Anyway, both are seemingly magically transformed into decent people, even though we never see that transformation in action. We might have had a chance if the couple had confronted the resurrected Ballin, but he’s dead before anything can really happen. Instead, the same police officer gives the relationship his blessing, allowing them to carry on their way while he deals with the body of a mysterious thought-dead-but-now-actually-dead cartel leader. We have no indication that either or both are willing to take the steps to make the relationship work, and have no idea what has changed about them since the last time they tried it, but the movie expects us to clap our hands and call it a happy ending.
If a movie tried something like that today, it would be dismissed as a poorly-plotted heap of junk, full of holes and awkward characterisation – relying on contrived circumstance to propel a mess of a plot towards an arbitrary finish line. However, because the film is over sixty years old, it seems to get “a pass.” I’ll be honest, that bugs me – the fact that critics and scholars will point to films like this as “classics” based solely on their age and the talent involved. The fact that these flaws, that would be critical flaws in any modern film, get glossed over because it’s old.
I honestly don’t see the point of that. I think it’s unfair to old films that genuinely are “classics”, like Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. I also think it’s unfair to modern films, which are roundly and regularly dismissed for having the kind of flaws that major Hollywood productions always had. It creates and reinforces this notion that the quality has rapidly declined or that the artform is lost. I don’t think that it is. I think that a lot of the structural weaknesses of modern films can be found in many of these classics, we just blind ourselves to them.
I don’t say this to demolish these old beloved films, but to observe how nostalgia taints our perception of cinema. Movie writers and reviewers seem caught in this perpetual fantasy that the past was some magical realm where the streets were lined with gold, and that somewhere Hollywood got “lost” in the way that it puts together movies. I don’t really believe that. Movie studios have always used gimmicks. In the past it was movie stars reteaming on a series of bland attempts to recapture the spirit of their earlier collaborations, and now it’s sequels to beloved movies. In days gone by, Hollywood plundered novels and plays for source material; now they use comics and television and other movies. It’s no better or worse than it ever was.
However, before this seems too cynical, I do feel a little bit of optimism. For if the flaws in modern movies can be seen to descend from those iconic films of yesteryear, then so too can the grace and glory and power reach from there to the modern day. If Gilda can be as flawed as the next bland Hollywood blockbuster, then surely the next great film could be as good as Citizen Kane? I don’t believe the present is better or worse than the past, but I do believe it has the potential to be both. If only we stopped raising the past up on a pedestal and lowering the present in our esteem.
Filed under: Movies | Tagged: arts, cinema, Citizen Kane, classics, critics, film criticism, films, George Macready, Gilda, Glenn Ford, Irish Film Institute, Johnny Farrell, Movies, nostalgia, reviews, Rita Hayworth, Ugly Truth, world war ii |