A spotlight caresses her body; the rhinestones on her pearly white dress twinkle like stars. The soft lighting makes her glow. The rest of the audience sits in shadow; all eyes on Gilda. As she dances, her silhouette teases the audience in Charles Vidor’s 1946 noir, now a special high-definition release in the Criterion Collection of classic and contemporary films.
Like many public spaces in 1946 America, this scene and this sort of role carried the label Whites Only. In Hollywood, black actresses like Lena Horne were denied the glamour and adoration lavished upon performers like Rita Hayworth. Though Hayworth and Horne were born just a year apart in Brooklyn, the women’s careers might as well have unfolded on two different planets, separate and unequal.
This planet in ‘46 also saw Ava Gardner in “The Killers” and Lana Turner in “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” These films belonged to a post-World War II fraternity dubbed Film Noir: Men with fedoras walked mean streets that seemed to snake out from their own troubled pasts.
And their women wore dresses whose necklines plunged almost as low as their morals, sometimes leading the men who fell for them to their doom.
Hayworth, Gardner and Turner flourished when movies never fell harder for their stars.