Charles Vidor, 1946
Starring: Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford, George Macready
“If I’d been a ranch, they would have called me the Bar Nothing.”
An unlucky gambler, Johnny Farrell, arrives in Argentina and is spontaneously rescued from robbery and violence by the wealthy Ballin Mundson, a Buenes Aires casino owner. He winds up working for Mundson and becomes his loyal right-hand man. The two agree that women don’t belong in gambling, but Mundson soon comes home with a sexy new wife – Gilda. He suspects that she and Johnny have a past, but they both deny it. The careless, unfaithful Gilda parties with various men, though Johnny follows her relentlessly; it is revealed that they had a disastrous past relationship. Mundson dies trying to escape two Nazis trying to collect on a debt; Johnny inherits the business and Gilda inherits his estate. They soon marry, though it turns out that Johnny has only married her to get revenge for her infidelity.
Though it is yet another film noir that examines the life of a beautiful, unhappy woman married to an older, wealthy man, there is nothing quite like Gilda. Often known as Rita Hayworth’s most successful film – which it undoubtedly is – I think it is unfairly neglected in the pantheon of great films noir. Be forewarned – much of the film is incredibly mean-spirited and it’s a somewhat frank look at spousal abuse. Despite her faults, Gilda is the clear victim and it’s impossible to dislike her regardless of what she may do to Ballin or Johnny. Though the story is initially set up as an interesting, gangster-themed film noir with the relationship between the down-on-his-luck Johnny and the sinister Ballin, it is pale and wan before Gilda’s arrival.
The film has an incredible amount of perversion and sexual subtext, considering the Production Code. The Ballin-Johnny-Gilda threesome is oddly foreshadowed by Ballin and Johnny’s initial third companion, Ballin’s “little friend,” an expensive black cane with a concealed blade that he always carries with him. This phallic, deadly object is the film’s only major indication of the homoerotic undertones to Ballin and Johnny’s relationship. Outside of the rushed, implausible happy ending, Gilda is openly portrayed as sexually promiscuous, a woman who will take fun, adventure, and attention wherever she can get it, even if it’s right under the nose of her husband or former lover.
Gilda's ultimate rebellion occurs during a third-act scene where she rushes onto the casino stage to embarrass Johnny, who has been keeping her prisoner and psychologically abusing her. She does a stirring, sexy yet desperate rendition of “Put the Blame on Mame,” complete with a strip tease where she asks the audience members to “help” with her dress zipper. The song sums up much of the film’s underlying issues – that a sexually independent woman who refuses to be contained by marriage, money, love, or propriety will inevitably be blamed for everything by the men in her life. Due to this psychological manipulation, Gilda is constantly imprisoned throughout the film – by Ballin, Johnny, and herself, through the institution of marriage, due to emotional neglect, and especially because of the period’s slowly changing gender roles and sexual mores.
Gilda is merely a possession for Ballin – as is Johnny – and there is no indication that they have an active sexual relationship. This is in keeping with other films noir centered on younger, sexual woman married to feasibly impotent, yet wealthy older man – and like those other films, wealth and in particular their mansion home serves as a prison more than a source of comfort or liberation. Gilda is trapped by Balinn’s home, wealth, and social status. While many other men find her alluring – of all ages, classes, and professions, as can be seen throughout the film – Ballin is is only attracted to dominance and control, fantasies he plays out with both Gilda and Johnny.
The film immediately capitalized on the worldwide paranoia that Nazis escaped to South America and assumed new identities with the strange plot of Ballin trying to escape ODESSA operatives. I honestly have no idea why they are after him, despite the fact that I watched the film two days ago. Though they are easily forgettable next to Gilda and the love triangle, they provide a nice backdrop of evil and perversion that further underlines Ballin’s icy, lethal character.
Glenn Ford (The Big Heat, 3:10 to Yuma) is particularly unlikable, masochistic, and misogynistic here as Johnny Farrell and he is upstaged at every turn by Rita Hayworth in her finest and most memorable performance. He is also often overshadowed by George Macready’s sinister, exotic Ballin Mundson (Detective Story, Count Yorga, Vampire), yet another version of the homme fatale seen in films noir like Laura, While the City Sleeps, Deception, and others.
While Gilda was Hayworth’s most successful film, parts of it also seem to mirror her private life. She was married several times and generally these relationships were incredibly abusive. She first married when she was 18 to her much older promoter, Edward C. Judson, who was physically abusive, controlling, and ultimately cleaned out her bank account. Though she briefly had a happy marriage with Orson Welles – he helped rewrite the script for Gilda – he was constantly busy and neglectful, and did not want to settle down. This was followed by an abusive marriage with the philandering Persian Prince Aly Khan – Hayworth was the first princess-actress in Hollywood – and another abusive and financially draining marriage with struggling singer Dick Haymes, as well as a fifth failed marriage. The unhappy Hayworth longed to retire from Hollywood, but had to keep working due to financial struggles caused by a series of abusive husbands who drained her bank accounts, as well as her somewhat extravagant lifestyle. She suffered from alcoholism nearly all her life and with Alzheimer’s for two or three decades before her death.
Hayworth’s beauty and sex appeal was somewhat of a curse for her; though it ensured her fame, she complained that the men who courted and married her thought they were marrying the brash, extroverted Gilda, not the shy, introverted, and nervous Rita. Though she was proud of the many musicals she made with Fred Astaire, she felt bitter at years of mistreatment at the hands of Columbia. Despite the fact that she was their top star, she was not allowed to choose her films, was given a poor financial agreement, and was often punished for her marriages or bad press related to her relationships. She became one of the biggest, if not the biggest, sex symbol of WWII – she was known as the “Love Goddess” – though the sad culmination of this was the fact that the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was named Gilda and allegedly plastered with a poster of her, to Hayworth’s rage and horror.
Gilda comes with the highest possible recommendation and is a fascinating portrayal of misogyny and spousal abuse in WWII and postwar America. The film is available on DVD and newcomers should check it as soon as possible – Hayworth is simply unforgettable.