I’ve never read a full biography about Rita Hayworth. The small amount of information I do know about her has always left me sad. From her earliest years, Rita was dominated by selfish men, starting with her father and continuing on to husbands, and men in the film industry who shaped her image. In many ways, her life was tragic one.
The knowledge of her personal life has always influenced my experience watching her films. I’m usually left with a feeling of both compassion and the melancholy of wondering what if? What if she had been in charge of her own career? What if she had found one man who would protect her instead of using, cheating and abandoning her? It is through this lens I view her performances.
Affair in Trinidad begins with death. The police arrive at a local nightclub to speak with the deceased’s widow, Chris Emery (Hayworth). She is famous all over the island as a dancer whose beauty draws in scores of customers. Initially the police believe the death may be a suicide, but after seeing and speaking with the gorgeous Chris, they suspect foul play. Chris is surprised by the news but not devastated. She and her husband Neil had drifted apart in their marriage.
Chris is all but ready to return to the states, when the investigator coerces her into assisting them. He believes that the wealthy and mysterious Max Fabian (Alexander Scourby) is responsible. After all, Fabian is known for his involvement with shady and criminal activities. The police have long desired to pin something on Fabian. They are not above using his patronage and friendship with Chris and her late husband to entrap the man.
Into this dangerous web, steps Steve Emery (Glenn Ford). Just prior to his death Neil had written his brother asking him to come to Trinidad. Steve arrives to the news of his brother’s death. He does not buy the official story that Neil killed himself and immediately suspects his brother’s sexy widow. Steve’s personal investigation into his brother’s death yields a few clues which support his opinion. But he is constantly stonewalled by Chris and the police.
Complicating matters is his attraction to his brother’s wife. He careens back and forth from doubt to belief in her, despite her apparently friendly connection to Fabian. With shifting loyalties, murky motives and suspicious behavior by many, the outcome of the investigation and the discovery of the truth is not guaranteed.
After an absence of four years, Affair in Trinidad marked the return of Rita Hayworth to the silver screen. Perhaps, to make the transition easier she was paired with co-star Glenn Ford for the fourth time. The magic and chemistry between Ford and Hayworth was first displayed in the film noir Gilda, which is the role Hayworth is best remembered for.
With several similarities between these pictures, inevitable comparisons will be made, and not in Affair in Trinidad’s favor. Once again, Rita plays a seductive singer who is pursued by a suave international gangster and a Glenn Ford character. Once again, Ford’s character suspects Rita’s which leaves him wrestling between love and hate for the woman he can’t resist. These aspects of the film are much better done in Gilda with the tension and emotion strung tight through the entire picture.
By comparison the chemistry between Rita and Glenn Ford seems to be lacking in this, their fourth collaboration. Steve Emery begins right away believing the worst of Chris, treating her with contempt and suspicion. But then out of the blue he suddenly displays his attraction to her with a passionate kiss, and the audience is supposed to believe they are in love? It doesn’t play as well as it did in Gilda. Not to mention, Ford’s performance as a whole in Affair in Trinidad seems lacking in some way I can’t quite put my finger on.
Another aspect of the film I found a bit lacking is the mystery of Neil’s death. It opens the film with a bang and provides a focus for the story line. But in reality it is a macguffin. The first half of Affair in Trinidad does everything it can to get the viewer invested in discovering who killed Neil. The investigator’s belief that it is Max Fabian leads him to basically blackmail Chris Emery for her help. He knowingly puts her life at risk for the sake of gathering evidence with which he can convict. Steve’s arrival ups the stake by adding someone with a personal interest in discovering how Neil died. Every action, taken by Chris and Steve is for the purpose of finding the murderer.
But halfway through the film that focus takes a turn, though the spotlight still remains on Fabian and his nefarious activities. Neil’s death suddenly loses it’s importance to the plot as more about Fabian is revealed. And though the real villain eventually gets what he deserves, Affair in Trinidad never really reveals how Neil died or who killed him. All the build up to that mystery goes to waste. Perhaps, with a director like Hitchcock this abandonment of the main plot line could have properly segued into an even more compelling story of suspense. But it was poorly managed here.
One of the aspects I found most frustrating about Affair in Trinidad is the portrayal of the main female character Chris Emery. Rita’s depiction of Chris lacks nothing. It is the way the role is written I find fault with. At every turn Chris is made subject and subservient to male purposes and motivations. She is objectified for her looks and then judged for the way she earns money to support herself and her artist husband. Even the police, who should be looking to protect her from her husband’s murderer instead throw her straight into the path of danger. They leave her with no other options but to use her personal connections to assist them in their investigation at great personal risk and in strict secrecy.
Then she is further forced to endure her brother-in-law’s suspicions, contempt, jealousy and anger all while trying to protect him from the danger she knows is lurking. And she does it all with grace, forbearance and dignity. Rita Hayworth gives a wonderfully understated portrayal of a weary, disillusioned woman with no one to depend on. The weaknesses of this film do not detract from but rather enhance Rita’s performance.
I find it of particular interest that Chris Emery in many ways reflects Rita’s real life experiences with men. That of being dominated, manipulated, used, coerced, abused and judged. In many ways Chris is just as powerless as Rita seemed to be in taking control of her own life. Instead her power is stripped from her by the selfish choices of the men in her life. For me, it is gut-wrenching to see this play out on the screen knowing how closely it mimicked Rita’s personal experiences. I wonder how Rita felt about this particular role, that must have hit very close to home for her.
All that being said, Affair in Trinidad isn’t a bad film. It just isn’t a great one. However, it’s flaws work in Rita’s favor, keeping the spotlight securely on her. Which is where it should be.