For this week’s post, I wanted to get back to films I had never seen before. It’s fun looking at films that I know well, and I love being able to show off films that are important to me, but I think it’s more interesting to look at films I’ve never seen before. For me, it’s actually easier to write about films I haven’t seen. When I don’t already have my favorite moments and scenes coming into a viewing, then it’s easier to pick out what things I’ll want to talk about in a post like this. So this time, I grabbed two films off my shelf that I hadn’t had a chance to watch yet. This week’s films are:
Charles Vidor – Gilda (1946)
Jules Dassin – Night and the City (1950)
Both are noir films, and are from around the same time period. I’ve done a lot of noir films on this blog, and that’s because it’s one of my favorite genres, and eras of film. The 40s and 50s were the golden age of Film Noir, and you can definitely expect to see a lot more of these as time goes on.
So let’s get into it.
Gilda is a film about a small-time gambler who gains the trust of a casino owner, and works his way to be his right hand man. Eventually, the boss comes home with a new wife, Gilda, who Johnny knows from his shady past. How will he reconcile the happiness of his boss with what he knows about Gilda?
The film is directed by Charles Vidor, who had a great long career in Hollywood, though not many of his films survived as all-time classics. The film stars Rita Hayworth as the title character, and Glenn Ford as Johnny. Rita Hayworth is one of those names that has stuck around in pop culture. Glenn Ford is probably a less recognizable name, but he had a great career. Most modern audiences would probably recognize him best as Pa Kent from the original Superman film, but Gilda barely cracks his “Known For” section on IMDb.
The cast is perfect, including George MacReady as the casino boss, Ballin. MacReady as Ballin is one of my favorite parts of the film. He’s ostensibly a criminal, running an illegal casino, and also a tungsten monopoly, but unlike the over the top and unhinged gangsters we might have seen in the classic crime films like The Roaring Twenties, Angels With Dirty Faces, and others, Ballin is smooth and quiet. He doesn’t shout, he doesn’t attack people, to the point we might see him as the hero of the piece. And in some ways, he might be. But he never lets us forget he’s in control. And while it’s always quiet, when he threatens people, you know he means it.
We first meet Johnny rolling dice in a craps game. The opening shot is great, with Johnny rolling the dice right at the camera. It’s really unexpected and a beautiful way to start the film. Johnny does his own voiceover here, filling in the gaps of the plot. Like most voiceover in film, it isn’t totally necessary, but it’s fine. Johnny is clearly down on his luck, and he’s wary of the other gamblers. The voiceover establishes that the film is taking place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Johnny exits the game before the other gamblers decide to question his winning streak.
As he leaves, a mugger attacks him, but he’s saved by a well-dressed man with a sword cane. The man tells him about a casino in town, but warns Johnny that he won’t be able to use his own dice. Johnny smiles, the man knows that he was cheating. So we see Johnny as not a careful gambler, but as an opportunistic cheater.
When he gets to the casino, the film is full of subtle bits of story that tell us about the world. Johnny sees a man look at the croupier and call out “Black 2!” the ball lands on the precise spot. The man takes his winnings and exits. Johnny knows a cheat when he sees it. In another moment, Johnny notices a man watching him in his shabby suit, wondering if he belongs. Without saying a word, Johnny casually takes his winnings from earlier from one pocket and puts them in another pocket, ensuring the man sees it. Johnny knows his way around this world.
He moves to the blackjack tables, and as the dealer is about to begin dealing, he asks to cut. The dealer allows it and Johnny does a complicated, practiced shuffle before handing the cards back. The dealer begins, throwing a blackjack on the table for Johnny. He asks for the cut again, and again, scoring a blackjack every time. Some audience members might think he’s crazy, but in reality, he’s auditioning. He wants to talk to the man in charge, and figures cheating like crazy is the quickest way to manage it.
He’s right and gets stopped by a couple of goons and taken to see the boss. It turns out to be Ballin, the man who saved him from the mugging. Johnny pitches him on his services, telling him he has no past, he’s all future. Ballin is convinced and Johnny joins the team, quickly moving up the ranks, eventually becoming Ballin’s trusted right hand man.
The plot moves lightning quick here, as Ballin comes home from vacation with a new wife. Of course, it’s Gilda. The film holds back here, keeping the secret of Ballin’s new wife as long as possible, setting up a major reveal. Johnny enters and waits, then sees Ballin, who casually tells him to come upstairs to see something. As Johnny nears the room, he hears a woman singing.
Ballin enters the room first, calling “Gilda, are you decent?”
The camera cuts to an empty frame and Rita Hayworth pops into it like a super star, her hair thrown back. This is a really famous shot from the history of cinema, and it’s easy to see why. It even pops up in The Shawshank Redemption, it’s so iconic.
The camera cuts to Johnny, and just through acting, we know that he recognizes her. Of course, she recognizes him as well.
The dialogue in this film is spectacular. Every line that is spoken when these three people are in the room seems to have a double meaning. It begins here, where everything Gilda says to Johnny is perfectly nice, but incredibly insulting as well. Look at this exchange:
Ballin Mundson: Look your best, my beautiful. This will be the casino’s first glimpse of you.
Gilda: I’ll look my very best, Ballin. [Looks at Johnny] I want all the hired help to approve of me. Glad to have met you, Mr. Farrell.
Ballin Mundson: His name is Johnny, Gilda.
Gilda: Oh, I’m sorry. Johnny is such a hard name to remember and so easy to forget.
Serious next level burn there. And the look on Gilda’s face tells us everything we need to know. She’s delighting in being above Johnny. We almost don’t need any more information.
These double meanings continue throughout the film. A lesser film would cast Ballin as a fool who doesn’t know what’s going on, but he’s no fool. He asks Johnny why Gilda dislikes him so much, and later, asks Gilda how she knows Johnny. So he knows something is up, but perhaps not exactly what.
We see the interactions between Gilda and Johnny in private when Ballin leaves them alone. Johnny reveals that he is protective of Ballin, and worries that Gilda is playing him and will eventually leave him high and dry. Gilda takes advantage of this, realizing that he will clean up any messes she gets herself into. She accepts a dance from another man, and Johnny can’t stop her. She dances with the man, but always looks over to Johnny, ensuring he’s watching. When he does, she gets even closer to the man, but when he looks away, she pulls back. She’s putting on a show for him. She knows she can get to him.
The tension between Johnny, Gilda and Ballin is the main thrust of the film. Gilda wants to torture Johnny. Johnny wants to protect Ballin. And Ballin wants to project strength over everyone around him.
Ballin reveals to Johnny that in addition to his casino, he also is the head of a tungsten conglomerate that has cornered the market. Ballin claims he can rule the world by controlling this material. He shows his trust in Johnny by showing him a safe that has all the papers and materials that one would need to take over the conglomerate. Complicating matters are the two Germans that are hanging around. Johnny doesn’t know exactly what they’re after, but they’re clearly trouble.
All the plot threads come to a head on a night when the Germans stop threatening and start acting. Ballin has to kill one of them, and ends up having to fake his own death, but not before seeing Gilda and Johnny kiss.
Thinking Ballin is dead, Johnny takes over the conglomerate, and essentially takes over Ballin’s life. He marries Gilda, who thinks that she might finally be loved, instead of just a piece of property. But Johnny has other ideas. Instead of being a loving husband, he puts her in an apartment with a guard and never visits. He’s still loyal to Ballin, even in death, and he’s punishing her.
She decides she can live her own life and tries to find dates, but Johnny is too powerful, and has his goons put a stop to it. She runs away to Montevideo and meets a lawyer who she wants to marry. He tells her if she gets a divorce without her husband’s consent it won’t be legal in Argentina. He tells her if she goes back to Buenos Aires she can get an annulment since Johnny left the marriage.
She goes back and he takes her to a hotel room. He turns on the light, and Johnny is already there. In one of the most savage moments ever put on film, he tells her that annulments don’t exist in Argentina. He’s played her the entire time. The lawyer was just a ploy to get her back under his direct control.
The film continues on, pulling Gilda and Johnny closer together, even as they are more and more cruel to each other. The final confrontation occurs as Johnny turns over evidence to the police about the tungsten conglomerate, which they are closing in on, and Ballin returns. It’s an interesting conclusion, and well worth watching.
This is a deeply complex film that moves incredibly quickly. Every scene is filled with several layers of information and I’m sure that I didn’t catch everything. The film is a perfect example of the noir style, with various characters, frequently Gilda are shot partially, or completely in shadow. It’s a great effect that adds a lot to the film visually.
The cast is perfect. I hadn’t really seen much of Glenn Ford before, but I was blown away by him in this film. He plays the smooth hustler, the jilted lover, and the loyal servant, sometimes all in the same scene.
The film is also pretty racy for the time. Gilda has several musical numbers in the film, including a beautiful moment where she’s playing guitar and singing softly in the casino after hours. But her final one is incredibly suggestive. She’s wearing a strapless dress and long gloves, and there are several shots designed to make it look like she’s wearing nothing at all. Looking at it today, it’s pretty tame, but in 1946, it was edgy.
Let’s look at the second film.
Night and the City (1950)
Night and the City is the story of a small time conman named Harry who’s constantly looking for his big score. When he meets a big time wrestler looking for a promoter, he sees his opportunity and pushes forward, challenging the existing power structure. When his plans start falling apart, how far will he go to keep it together?
The film is directed by Jules Dassin, who directed a lot of great crime movies like Rififi and The Naked City. The film stars Richard Widmark as Harry, who is an actor I feel like I’ve seen before, but I can’t find anything on his filmography I recognize, and Gene Tierney, who is very well known. We’ll talk more about her later.
The film opens with Harry running. The shots here are great. Some strong overhead A voice over, and the visuals inform us that we’re looking at London. Harry runs through various streets with a man chasing him. He finally arrives at Mary’s apartment. The film sets up his character early, as he goes into her apartment and starts looking around when he can’t find her. He’s about to open her purse when she appears. She tells him he won’t find any money in there. He tries to play it off, but we know the truth.
She asks him who he’s running from, and he tells Mary about the great new opportunity that he has discovered, running a dog track. Mary lets him talk for a bit, then finally asks him how much money he needs. She’s heard this game before, and she’s not playing anymore. He tells her how he just wants to be a somebody, a big shot. She wants him to just lead a normal life. She shows him a picture of the two of them together in happier times. She asks him if he remembers the plans they used to make. She tells him he needs to leave, but he can’t, he owes money that he doesn’t have to the man who was chasing him. She gives him the money, just to get him to leave.
We see more of Harry’s life, as he goes to a club called The Silver Fox, run by Philip (played by Francis L Sullivan, who we saw earlier in Great Expectations), and his wife Helen. Philip has also seen every game that Harry runs, and knows not to trust him. But he’s perfectly willing to use him. We see Harry’s standard evening, as he goes around to different clubs, trying to trick people into coming to the Silver Fox. His scam is simple. He sees a mark coming into the club, and then asking the cabby for information. He sets up near the men, then drops his wallet, asking the men if one of them dropped it. When they say no, he gives it to the waiter, showing the men he’s trustworthy. As they make small talk, he drops some detail that further ingratiates the men to him, making him seem like he’s one of them. He then tells them of a great night spot he knows, giving them his card to show at the door so he gets credit for sending them along.
It’s a pretty simple scam, but Harry’s great at it. Earlier in the film, a neighbor of Mary’s tells her that Harry is an artist without an art, but we can see his art clearly here.
Harry’s day changes when he heads to a wrestling match. While trying the wallet scam again, he sees an argument between Kristo, the wrestling promoter, and his father, the famous retired wrestler Gregorius. Gregorius is sickened with the type of wrestling that his son is putting on, and is leaving with the star wrestler he trains. Harry has a flash of insight and positions himself carefully so that as Gregorius is leaving, he can be heard lambasting the ticket booth with the phony terrible wrestling that’s being performed. He strikes up a conversation with Gregorius and buys him a drink.
Harry returns to Philip’s thrilled. He’s finally caught a break, and he just needs four hundred dollars to get it started. Unfortunately, Harry’s tragedy is the same as the boy who cried wolf. Everyone’s heard his lines a million times before, and he’s all out of trust. Philip laughs at him. But his wife intervenes. If Harry can raise $200, then Philip will back the rest.
Harry spends the next few scenes pitching to various underworld figures. First, a man who runs a ring of fake beggars, with fake ailments, then a forger, then a smuggler. None want to back him. Finally, he ends up in a bar. He pitches to the bartender, who also turns him down, but then he hears a familiar voice call to him. It’s Helen. She offers him the $200, but not for his wrestling scheme. She wants to get away from Philip, and wants Harry to use his contacts to get her a club license. She’s bought a club, but it’s not eligible for a license for another year. She wants to get away sooner. She instructs him to string Philip and the wrestling scam along long enough for her to get away, then she’ll hire him.
Harry, of course, has other plans. Unfortunately, Kristo runs all the wrestling in London currently, and isn’t afraid to get rough with any potential competition. His lawyer visits Philip and tells him that Harry shouldn’t proceed with his plan, and backing him would be a bad idea. But when Harry arrives with the $200, Philip is suspicious. He checks the closet for a fur coat he’d just given his wife, and discovers it’s missing. He starts to piece together why his wife has been so distant. He backs Harry, but ensures that he be a silent partner and that only Harry’s name should be on the business. A major warning sign to anyone smarter than Harry.
So everyone’s got an angle. Harry is trying to screw over Kristo, taking over the wrestling business in London. Helen is trying to screw over her husband, opening a competing club and getting away from him. And Philip is setting Harry up for a very nasty encounter with Kristo. And Harry has another angle, trying to get his wrestling business going while also keeping Helen from asking too many questions about her license.
So the plot is in motion. We see Harry starting to make progress on all fronts. He starts his wrestling gym is, and even fends of f a visit from Kristo with the help of Gregorius. He has the forger he met earlier draw up a fake license, and thinks he’s solved that problem.
Richard Widmark as Harry is essentially perfectly cast. Like I said before, I feel like I recognized him, but I can’t place what I’d seen him in before. As Harry, he’s got this goofy smile that marks him as God’s perfect idiot. He’s just a character that was born to lose, and he’s doomed to lose here too. Every time he takes a step forward, he manages to dig himself a further hole. Everything begins to fall apart as Philip begins exerting pressure, attaching strings to his money, then pulls out when he’s sure Harry is committed and has access to no other money. Harry has to sign a rival wrestler for a match which leads to a fight, which leads to Gregorius over exerting himself, and finally dying in his son Kristo’s arms. Harry gets away before Kristo can exact his revenge, but he puts a 1000 pound bounty on his head, and Harry can’t find any friends to help him. He runs all night.
Meanwhile, the other side of the story is wrapping up, as Helen has dramatically told Philip that she’s leaving him, but soon after, the police discover her license is a forgery. She crawls back to Philip, telling him she didn’t mean it, but it’s too late. He has changed his will and killed himself, leaving her with nothing.
Finally, Harry ends up at the dock, and finds the smuggler he met earlier. She lets him sit down, but tells him she can’t help him. Mary wanders in, having searched for him all night. Harry comes up with a plan. If Mary turns him into Kristo, she can collect the bounty. Mary refuses, but Harry runs out, trying to make a big show of saying how Mary betrayed him by turning him in, knowing that Kristo and his goons are nearby.
Of course, Harry is caught by one of Kristo’s wrestlers, coincidentally named the Strangler, and he strangles Harry, then tosses him into the nearby river. Mary leaves the scene crying, while the police lead the Strangler away.
This is a great little movie. A dark noir thriller with some great acting and a great story. Harry is a great tragic figure, and seeing him succeed so many times, only to fail miserably. He’s of course his own worst enemy. He’s always convinced that the ultimate success is right around the corner, so it doesn’t matter what bridges he burns now, he can make apologies and amends after he’s made it. This eventually leads to his downfall.
Let’s talk about Gene Tierney for a bit. She’s credited second in the film, but watching the film, she’s barely there. I only counted about 4 scenes that she’s actually in. Of course, she’s a critical characer, for sure, but as far as screen time goes, she’s on the low end of the group. But Richard Widmark is the star here, and he’s in essentially every scene. Every plot point and scene revolves around him. This was an early role for him, and I don’t know if it was a star turn for him, but it had to be a big boost to his career.
Francis L. Sullivan as Philip and Googie Withers as Helen are great as well. These two could have starred in their own film with this story and it would have been incredibly satisfying. Another reason Mary’s side of the story seems so tacked on is that these two make it clear that the film can create a compelling side story.
Regardless, the film is a hidden gem that I don’t think is remembered particularly well. It’s a great example of a noir film, and well worth watching.
The Double Feature
What a great pair of films. There are definitely times when watching films that I get a sense that a movie’s been going on for awhile and I check the clock, or pause and unpause quickly to see how much time has elapsed. But I didn’t do that for either of these films. They’re both so engaging, I got totally sucked in.
As a pair, these work great together. Noir films tend to be pretty consistent style-wise, and these are no exception. They both focus on shady characters, usually criminals or at least people working outside the law. They both involve characters who are trying to get ahead in the world and become somebody, both by attaching themselves to someone already established and trying to build off of their success. Johnny with Ballin and his casino and tungsten empire, and Harry with Gregorius and his wrestling expertise.
The films also both have the classic film noir femme fatale, the woman who manages to cause problems for the protagonist. However, while Gilda focuses on the femme fatale and her story, Night and the City turns the trope around a bit. In this story, Helen fits the character type best, but she isn’t damaging the protagonist. She tries to use Harry for her own ends, but he subverts her, betraying her and turning things around for his own benefit. She is then punished for her actions, rather than Harry facing punishment for what he did.
Punishment is also a big theme in noir films. Because of the production code, any criminal act generally had to be punished before the film was over. What this means is that Hollywood could make films about criminals, but the criminal had to be sent to jail or be killed before the film was over as punishment. At the end of Gilda, Johnny and Gilda are redeemed, with Ballin taking the punishment. In Night and the City, Harry of course faces the ultimate punishment, but not before showing some redeeming qualities. Interestingly, we never see Mary actually collect the money, and there’s no indication that Kristo even heard that Harry was trying to claim her as the betrayer. In my opinion, Mary probably never saw the money, nor even sought it.
I feel pretty good lately. My life is getting back on track after a really tough semester. I’m starting to look forward to things again, and my allergies are getting under control. I’ve been having a great time in my class the last week or so now that we’re getting into the fun parts, where students are designing things and I can give them pointers on how to improve. That’s what I’m really in this for.
So what about next week’s films? I realized there was one type of film that I hadn’t really focused on, and it’s one of my favorite of all-time. And I have two films from directors I haven’t covered yet that are perfect examples. So next week’s films are coming of age stories:
Richard Linklater – Dazed and Confused (1993)
Cameron Crowe – Almost Famous (Untitled: The Bootleg Cut) (2000)
Both directors are amazing directors, and both have done some great coming of age films that I’m not even covering here. Richard Linklater did Boyhood a few years ago, which was an amazing film, as well as School of Rock, and Cameron Crowe wrote Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and wrote and directed Singles, which while it isn’t a teenage coming of age story, it is a coming of a different age, people in their mid-20s, moving on to full adulthood.
I’m specifically choosing to do the Untitled: Bootleg Cut of Almost Famous, which I think is the definitive version of the film. Of course, that version is close to 3 hours long, so it will be the longest film I’ve ever covered on the blog, but it’s one of my top 5 favorite films of all time, so it doesn’t bother me at all.
See you then.