“Gilda” is a film noir directed by Charles Vidor in 1946. The movie is world famous – mainly thanks to the scene danced and sung by Rita Hayworth – and everyone thinks they know its storyline – however its subtext is much more subtle that it seems.
Let’s summarize the plot: Johnny Farrell (played by Glenn Ford) arrives in Buenos Aires. He is a professional player but as he cheats, he almost gets beaten up on the docks by the sailors he has just tricked when he is opportunely saved by a mature elegant man, armed with a cane hidding a retractable blade.
The elegant man is Ballin Mundson (played by George Macready), owner of the casino in town. A strong friendship grows between the two men, so much so that Johnny quickly becomes Ballin’s right-hand man. The casino prosperates particularly well under the aegis of this new team. The two men celebrate their success by promising each other that no woman will interfere between them because gambling and women never go well together.
Ballin goes on a business trip but unexpectedly returns accompanied by a woman, Gilda (played by Rita Hayworth), whom he met two days before and married the day before. Gilda is free, voluptuous and sumptuous.
Johnny’s annoyance at seeing a woman interfere in his relationship with Ballin gets out of control when he realizes that the bride is the woman who broke his heart some time ago.
Ballin, too busy organizing an occult cartel aimed at monopoly tungsten, keeps asking Johnny to chaperone Gilda, but Johnny’s hatred and jealousy of Gilda hardly makes life bearable.
The situation escalates a little more when Ballin, pursued by the police, escapes and dies in a plane crash, leaving Johnny and Gilda face to face.
Against all odds, they marry but this is a subterfuge plotted by Johnny to fully satisfy his revenge against a woman he considers unfaithful and disloyal.
Ballin, who had faked his death, reappears.
(I won’t say more).
Several codes of American film noir are perfectly respected by “Gilda”: the exotic location in Buenos Aires, the gangsters, the danger, the death, the unhappy love story, the hot woman, the dilemma of said hot woman that one might think “fatal” between an American and a European. All of this greatly echoes “Casablanca”.
However, “Gilda” diverges greatly from the archetype of American film noir on two essential points that go hand in hand.
First of all, Gilda is a statue-woman: she is never really loved, desired or touched. Johnny may have loved, desired and touched her in a past life, but the feelings that dominate when he sees Gilda again is hatred and jealousy. He does everything in his power to avoid her, put her down and above all not touch her – even though she tries to create a physical intimacy (the bodies that come together around a table supposed to celebrate Gilda’s marriage to Ballin, the invitations to dance, the ballads sung in the middle of the night under Johnny’s windows, the creation of problematic situations to force her chaperone to come to the rescue).
Ballin, on the other hand, may find Gilda magnificent, but his admiration always remains distant, without emotional or physical intimacy. There is no scene of intimacy between the spouses (the only scene of discussion is rather chilling and sadomasochist) and their bodies never touch each other.
Gilda is alone. Gilda dances in the arms of other men. Gilda is a living statue on stage, subtly miming a striptease in a black dress and long gloves in front of the captive audience of this sublime woman who only dreams of being loved, desired and touched.
Gilda seems at first glance to be a femme fatale, but in the end she only wants to receive love and tenderness. Her dangerousness comes only from its beauty and the male desire that results from it, but the danger is quickly avoided. If men die, it is rather the consequence of their own evil acts.
Gilda will hardly be loved, desired or touched and for good reason: she competes – without knowing it – against a homosexual relationship between Johnny and Ballin – if we want to understand the subtext of the film.
You have to remember that the film is shot in 1946, that the Hays Code censors anything that deviates from morality and traditional heterosexuality. As general guidelines, Hollywood movies must see the triumph of family, the good wife and must see gangsters and/or personalities with so-called deviant morality or sexuality eradicated.
“Gilda”, which is shot at the end of the war, is part of the continuity of the war effort carried by Hollywood where the good guys are rewarded and the bad guys are punished.
It therefore goes without saying, in this context, that the Hays Code at that time considered homosexuality to be a sexual perversion. The femme fatale, too. Obviously.
Hollywood screenwriters, directors and actors must constantly play with forbidden concepts – and that’s why American film noir is such an exciting genre, as it requires multiple viewings to fully understand.
In “Gilda”, the “real villain” is punished at the end, but the fact remains that the screenplay, with the complicity of the actors, largely cheats on the Hays Code by adding a subtle but nevertheless present subtext to it.
In this case, a homosexual relationship between Johnny and Ballin – carried by many symbols.
The scene of the first meeting between Johnny and Ballin is particularly explicit and recalls all the scenes where a wealthy man comes to pick up a prostitute in the slums of the city.
Ballin saves Johnny thanks to his cane with a retractable blade, which can only evoke the phallic member.
The exchange of glances is very intense (especially when they light their cigarettes – one of the codes of sexual desire in American film noir) and everything becomes (almost) crystal clear when Johnny tells Ballin that he “must lead gay life”.
A little later, Ballin makes it clear that he only has two “little” friends: his cane and Johnny. Their relationship, which has become close, reaches its apotheosis when they toast to their success as business partners, promising each other that no woman will come between them.
Johnny’s jealousy and hatred of Gilda is as much about Gilda’s (supposed) past mistakes as her (supposed) lack of loyalty and fidelity to Ballin, whom Johnny reveres and loves more than anything.
When Johnny marries Gilda and locks her in a golden cage, it is as much to avenge his own misfortune as that – supposedly – of Ballin.
Glenn Ford later made it very clear in an interview that he and George Macready knew they were playing gay characters (he is quoted by Vito Russo in “The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies” but I have to admit I didn’t find Glenn Ford’s interview despite my research). On the other hand, it would seem that the director Charles Vidor was completely unaware of this homosexual subtext when he made the film.
It is probably the only American film noir of this era that presents so clearly a homosexual male sexuality, carried by two main protagonists. The real love story takes place between Johnny and Ballin – in fact Gilda is totally excluded from any love intrigue even though she is at the center of all relationships. She may bewitch the audience when she sings “Put the Blame on Mame” but the reality of her intimate drama is that she pushes every possible limit to be loved, desired and touched.
In this regard, Gilda does not necessarily respond to all the attributes of the “femme fatale” of Hollywood film noir. In the end, she is not fatal to anyone, except perhaps to herself.
And to Rita Hayworth, who will say that the men in her life went to bed with Gilda, but woke up visibly upset with Rita.
The fact remains that “Gilda” is a poisonous, bewitching movie – in the most perfect tradition of American film noir.
December 16, 2022
Blumarine dress – Anne Fontaine necklace – Vionnet clutch – Vintage opera gloves – YSL fur