Charles Vidor’s dazzling 1946 film GILDAis an erotic, thrilling Hollywood noir. Set in Buenos Aires and starring the incomparable Rita Hayworth in one of her greatest roles, Vidor’s film also features some of the most glamorous (and notorious) costumes in Hollywood history, created by the famous French costume designer Jean Louis.
As Columbia Pictures’ head designer from 1944 to 1958, Louis had a unique flair for making unforgettable looks for the leading ladies he dressed. On the occasion of GILDA’s release, we took a look back at a selection of the remarkable designs Jean Louis created for the film’s radiant star—from luxurious evening gowns to sparkling sequined coats—which are every bit as impressive today as they were seventy years ago.
“Gilda is confusing. In it, hatred is more powerful (and sexier) than love. Gilda’s husband of one or two days, Ballin Mundson (played with a beautiful and disturbing mix of insecurity, impotence, and deadpan calculation by George Macready) confesses to Gilda, “Hate can be a very exciting emotion. Very exciting. Haven’t you noticed that?” Later, Gilda echoes those exact words into Johnny’s ear, and her arousal is palpable. Gilda is not meant to be clear. It is meant to plunge the audience into an atmosphere so emotionally claustrophobic that even Johnny’s voice-over can’t provide escape or enlightenment. In fact, his voice-over drops away in the final section of the film, so that Johnny’s feelings about Gilda in the last scenes are never revealed. Most noir voice-overs provide backstory and explanation. Not Johnny’s. There are some things that are buried too deep. The only characters in the film who have any perspective are the washroom attendant and the police detective. The leads have none.
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Gilda is a destabilized hybrid of polished studio musical and pitch-black noir. The film looks both backward, to The Shanghai Gesture, Casablanca, and To Have and Have Not, and forward, to the sexually and politically paranoid films of later noir. There is a cadre of eccentrics as well as a couple of wandering leftover Nazis. There’s a “tungsten cartel” that recalls the uranium ore in the contemporaneous Notorious and is equally irrelevant to the story. Gilda also features an “exotic” setting, like Notorious and those earlier films, with characters who may not actually be allowed to return home. The docks and casinos of Argentina in Gilda represent the end of the line. The mood is violent, sexual, chaotic. Hayworth is often shot in complete darkness, not even a bar of light across her eyes. Characters’ shadows on the walls are so elongated that they appear to be detached sentient beings. In one scene, Ballin stands in the foreground, a looming black shape on the right of the frame, with Johnny and Gilda fully lit across the foyer. The scene ends with Ballin turning his head, a flat black silhouette superimposed on the scenery beyond. These are psychosexual noir effects, tipping the studio movie into the muck.”
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