The Social Relevancy and Enigmatic Messages of “Gilda”

Films in black and white are too often judged poorly by modern moviegoers because of their lack of color. Such discrimination is uncalled for, as some of the best films ever created make great use of the different shades visible by blending black and white together on the big screen. Film noir, the cinematic term attached to crime dramas that heavily focus on cynical characters and sexual motivations (a french phrase, literally translating to “black film”), is a genre born out of Hollywood’s golden age and is generally personified by its use of shadow, stylish cinematography, and cryptic dialogue.

Born out of the depths of these qualities is arguably the most enticing female character of film noir’s rich history. The ultimate femme-fatale, Gilda, a ravishing, complicated woman whose mysterious past entangles everyone who meets her, is the fixture of the classic film noir, Gilda. What is so revealing and beguiling about Gilda? Of course, Gilda is Rita Hayworth, one of the most iconic actresses of all time. If you don’t know her name, you probably know her picture.

The first appearance of Gilda in the film.
“Gilda, are you decent?”

Her magnetic screen presence, flanked by two enigmatic men, propel the film, separating it from other works of the genre through its captivating cinematography, slick costumes, and convincing story line and acting. Gilda’s plot joins together familiar film noir elements, set against the backdrop of Buenos Aires, Argentina in the late 1940’s. Johnny Farrell, the male lead, played by Glenn Ford, is a small time gambler who is almost mugged after slyly winning at craps in an alley. He is saved by Ballin Mundson, a German business owner, played by George Macready, who tells him of a popular casino in town, but warns him not to cheat at craps when he gets there. Farrell cheats, gets caught, finds out Mundson runs the joint, talks him into hiring him as his right hand man, and everyone seems happy—until Gilda, his new wife, makes her appearance.

Hayworth first appears on screen whipping her hair back in a gesture that oozes innocent sexuality. Ballin, upon entering his bedroom to introduce Gilda to his new hired hand, asks her if she’s decent, a question that, within the context, insinuates derelict meaning well beyond a polite question. The reason for this is that, shortly after, it becomes clear that Johnny and Gilda have a history together, one that they want to keep hidden from Ballin and everyone else.

This is a major turning point in the film, obviously. A new tension takes over, the film enters a new stage, Gilda igniting the ensuing conflicts, both personal and professional. For the sake of your viewing pleasure, no major plot indications will be given; after all, who wants to know too much about a film before watching? But the detailed layering of Gilda’s varying elements must be identified, as they produce a film indicative of the multifarious nature of sexuality and how explicit crime ravages relationships. Combine the two and literal and emotional fireworks go off.

“I can never get a zipper to close. Maybe that stands for something, what do you think?”

The film didn’t entice everyone, though. Directed by Charles Vidor and released in 1946, Gilda confused Bosley Crowther of the New York Times enough to inspire a demeaning review. “Despite close and earnest attention to this nigh-onto-two-hour film, this reviewer was utterly baffled by what happened on the screen,” proclaims Crowther; “It seems that a fantastic female, the pivotal character in this film, turns up in a Buenos Aires casino as the wife of the dour proprietor. But it also seems that she was previously the sweetie of a caustic young man who is quite a hand at gambling and is employed by this same proprietor.” Crowther does not spare much time or praise for Gilda, summing up his disparaging opinion in a few paragraphs mainly consisting of remarks about his inability to interpret the turns of the film. He’s spot on, if you categorize yourself as a viewer who doesn’t take the time to piece together hidden information from cryptic, emotionally charged lines.

Perhaps he couldn’t stand the bluntness of Johnny and Gilda’s love-hate relationship. After all, this tug of war is the most exposed element of Gilda. In response to Johnny admitting his dislike for Gilda, near the beginning of the film, she retorts: “Hate is a very exciting emotion. Haven’t you noticed? Very exciting. I hate you too, Johnny.” The tension between the two is obvious throughout, at times pulsating enough to catch you off guard. It’s the bloodline of the film and the most realistic element. Their shared antagonism is so common in soured relationships. The portrayal of their tumultuous relationship is an intriguing, if not too snappy, example of modern day couples who try to outdo one another to make the other partner envious. The advent of social technology has only made such egotistical personalities more prevalent. It’s not as if these two are honest and forthcoming people; far from it, they are equivocal to the extreme, uncomfortable with their pasts, motivated by ulterior desires.

The two protagonists are face to face for most of the film, rarely letting up on one another.
The two protagonists are face to face for most of the film, rarely letting up on one another.

But there is strong evidence to suggest that Johnny abused Gilda when they were previously together. Lines from her—such as: “They said that being married to Johnny Farrell was very like driving a car with no brakes”—put a fragrant spin on a too often glossed over issue in our society: Women are too often abused by men. Johnny’s treatment of Gilda for most of the film is questionable, and it’s pretty obvious that their earlier relationship did not fare much better. Viewers do not see him strike her, but his verbal abuse can be considered scarring and unwarranted. For such a supposed “modern,” globalized world we live in, societies across the globe tend to sweep spousal abuse under the rug. The overall attitude of the men in the film toward women tends to be demeaning, but Gilda sheds the cloaks of vulnerability, helplessness, and naiveté that plague female identity in popular culture. This may sound routine or common to audiences in 2015, but for the very recently dubbed post-war generation of 1946, this was relatively ground breaking.

On a different plane, but in support of Gilda’s rebellious swagger, is the song “Put the Blame on Mame,” an original tune written for the film. Two versions are performed by Hayworth, the second being the most famous (more on that soon); but it’s the first, acoustic rendition that truly unveils the fluid vulnerability of Gilda. The slow, lyrical ballad oozes from Gilda’s lips, the soft strumming guitar obediently supporting her, as an innocent admirer, another foil to the plot, sits at her side. So much hidden meaning is wrapped up in the song—detailing the exploits of “Mame,” a woman whose lust was the cause for three traumatic events—and Gilda’s delivery, seated atop a roulette table, helps to establish subterranean connections with other elements of the film. Here are the first two verses of the song:

When Mrs. O’Leary’s cow
Kicked the lantern in Chicago town
They say that started the fire
That burned Chicago down
That’s the story that went around
But here’s the real low-down
Put the blame on Mame, boys
Put the blame on Mame
Mame kissed a buyer from out of town
That kiss burned Chicago down
So you can put the blame on Mame, boys
Put the blame on Mame

Remember the blizzard, back in Manhattan
In eighteen-eighty-six
They say that traffic was tied up
And folks were in a fix
That’s the story that went around
But here’s the real low-down
Put the blame on Mame, boys
Put the blame on Mame
Mame gave a chump such an ice-cold “No”
For seven days they shovelled snow
So you can put the blame on Mame, boys
Put the blame on Mame.

Johnny interrupts before she finishes, alluding to further troubles to come between the two. But the lyrics symbolize Gilda as the epicenter of great conflict, yet someone who is continually overlooked. She is a woman whose true personality is constantly hinted at, but never fully revealed. It’s easy to guess the trouble the lyrics foreshadow concerning the fate of those who mix with Gilda, but it’s a mistake to assume that she is as devious and intentional as “Mame.”

Crime is a Pattern

The situation Johnny and Gilda are plunged into breeds caprice and deception. Set in post war Argentina, one of the eventual homes to Nazis at large after World War II, the driving criminal force of the film is bigger than their relationship. Two Americans abroad would get stuck in such predicaments worthy of center stage, right? They’re not entirely to blame, and the film is smooth in echoing how young adults often become mixed up with the wrong crowds for the wrong reasons. Everything about the casino lifestyle looks attractive. The fact of the casino being in Argentina and not America does little to erase the enticing vibe gambling sways over millions of people today, enticing them to take large risks, financially and romantically.

Gambling is merely the background of their menacing playground. Escaped Nazis play a major part of the story line–the war ending not long before the film, their presence is completely relevant and realistic, considering how many actually got out of Europe before the Nuremberg trials began. Johnny and Gilda unknowingly becoming mixed up in their affairs does not indite them as criminals, but their accessory involvement does speak of a larger pattern detailing their ignorance of responsibility. Most of the film, at least from the perspective of their relationship, can be categorized as their running away from responsibility to one another. Such a lack of irresponsibility is understandable to most young adults of today’s generation. Ambivalence in relationships is even lauded, unfortunately, on certain television shows and movies, and our public seems to have become desensitized to the romantic problems portrayed in Gilda. These two aren’t ambivalent, but they do bridge the gap between responsibility and ambivalence, and you won’t be surprised to recognize how elements of Johnny and Gilda are reflected in the popular cool personas of today’s hip crowds.

Gilda injects these elements with high doses of sexual tension and innuendo, the volume depending upon the scene. Here is where the most obvious gap between generations comes through: sexuality throughout the film is absolutely present and palpable, but it is never portrayed in a degrading or shameful manner, as is too often the case in current movies. Actually, Gilda is empowered through her sexuality, often manipulating Johnny, Ballin, and every other male who is captured by her charm. This is arguably the main sticking point, at least in terms of Gilda’s presence, of the film: overwhelming sexuality does not override intelligent sensuality. Gilda may manipulate men, but she does not promiscuously do so, even though she has plenty of chances and even hints to Johnny about her many male suitors. She routinely positions herself in order to influence Johnny, whether from a close proximity or from a distance, always making sure he understands his previous mistakes regarding their relationship. Her dialogue does not reek of the obscene rashness viewers may expect from slighted spouse regarding their former lover, but, rather, she entices Johnny through soft tones and emotionally charged speech.

But she also knows how to use body language to communicate trickier feelings. There is no replica for Rita’s dripping sensuality in the famous striptease performance. As John Patterson put it, “There are moments in Gilda – like the single-glove striptease that enlivens Hayworth’s second rendition of “Put The Blame On Mame,” and much of the insanely ripe dialogue – when you suddenly understand why your grandparents used to say, “I preferred it when they kept their clothes on.”” Body language never said so much. By this scene, the film has revealed enough about Gilda for you to read into various, competing influences for her motivation to dance. Her black dress has since become a fashion icon—the sexy cousin to Audrey Hepburn’s sleek number from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Just as impressive as the look of the dress is Hayworth's dancing ability, showcased in two fantastic scenes.
Just as impressive as the look of the dress is Hayworth’s dancing ability, showcased in two fantastic scenes.

The movements of that dress solidified Rita Hayworth’s notoriety, pushing her personality beyond the boundaries of the film. Soon after release, Gilda gave birth to a fun fact of history: the fourth atomic bomb to be detonated by the United States had a photograph of Rita Hayworth pinned to its side, with the name “Gilda” stenciled about it in big letters. Hayworth was furious, deeply offended with being connected to an atomic bomb. She was nothing like Gilda and hated being mistaken for the character’s personality traits. It says a lot about the woman as an actress in that she gave such a convincing and memorable performance.

To this day, Gilda brings to light questions that plague each generation of humans, begging answers that must be learned through personal experience. But Gilda just had such a unique way of putting those questions out there that makes one feel eagerly intoxicated: “I can never get a zipper to close. Maybe that stands for something, what do you think?”

Works Cited

Crowther, Bosley. “THE SCREEN; Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford Stars of ‘Gilda’ at Music Hall –‘Vacation From Marriage’ Has Donat and Deborah Kerr.” New York Times Review. 15 March, 1946.

Patterson, John. “Gilda is Pure, Undistilled Rita Hayworth.” The Guardian. 15 July, 2011.

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  1. Excellent article. “Gilda” is certainly one of the more compelling films noir of the post-war period, and this article does a great job of explaining why and how. It’s also unique in the sense that there are few other films of that era where none of the characters are at all likable or redeemable.

  2. Paul Sparrow

    I watched this a few years ago as part of a marathon, going from 1911-present day. I found this movie didn’t really stand out, I’d forgotten it soon after watching it unlike other classics from that era, like Bringing up Baby, Suspicion, Queen Christina, Double Indemnity…

  3. Some very clever dialogue, interplay of interesting characters, atmosphere.

  4. Polanco

    All art is a product of its time, and Gilda predates films with nudity, semi-explicit sex, vulgar language, heavy violence (etc) by several decades (though it does have a lot of figurative car crashes).

  5. This is probably the best acted film noir I’ve seen so far.

  6. zenamac

    I’ve never been able to sit through the whole thing.

  7. Kendal Berg

    I watched Gilda again the other day, this time paying close attention to the script.

    The script alone makes it great. It cleverly sidesteps the kind of “on the nose” dialog that would have gotten it in trouble with the Hayes Office. Mundson is obviously bisexual, and, he’s cruising the docks. Farrell would be a nice catch, so it would be worth his trouble to rescue him. (Note Farrell’s remark “You must lead a gay life”. In this case, he doesn’t mean carefree.)

    The interchange about whether Mundson’s sword cane is male or female (!!!) anticipates the infamous “Do you want to see my gun?” scene in Red River. The unexpected response — the sarcastic observation that it’s female, because it looks like one thing at a distance, but something quite different close-up — is the script’s first obviously misogynistic remark.

    It’s easy to assume Mundson is a voyeur, throwing Farrell and Gilda together to see what might happen.

  8. This one actually has some clever writing, and I’ve always liked it, though I don’t consider it a classic by any means.

    • TheFraser

      It is a classic because it has a major star in the role that many consider her finest, she looks amazing, and the story is compelling… It has good acting, and even some song and dance… The Gilda character lives on because she is fascinating, a study in sexuality and desire vs. obligation. Yes, this film and it’s noir style has become cliche in some ways, but that’s only because it’s so good…

  9. The fast-paced dialogue is some of the best from any film noir.

  10. Kenia Kraus

    I don’t get all the fuss about this film. Can’t say I’m sorry I saw this, but it did leave me feeling gypped.

    • Parrish

      Perhaps the greatest thing I got from this film was confirmation that “all that glitters isn’t gold,” age-old wisdom from yore.

  11. I put off seeing Gilda not because I never wanted to, it just never really came into my sphere of being. I was raised on classic hollywood, the screwball comedies were my dad’s favourite, though now and then we would delve into the realm of noir. We never watched Gilda, but I think he just didn’t fancy Rita Hayworth as much as he did other stars, such as Myrna Loy and Ingrid Bergman.
    I’m glad I waited. If I had seen this movie when I was young, it would have been lost on me. It required me to have a more mature, tempered perspective to fully appreciate it. I think it’s known because of Hayworth’s hair flip/striptease seduction skills, but the writing is bang on and found me cheering out loud at particular lines, and how they’re deftly delivered.
    I very much enjoyed your article, not just because of the light it casts on an era of film that shouldn’t be forgotten, but because of the perspective it offered me on a movie I do love. Thanks.

  12. Myung Nunn

    Great film. It’s no surprise it was added to the National Film Registry for preservation.

  13. i just finished watching it (and barely) and it was pretty dull overall as it was kind of hard to finish it as my interest in it fizzles out the further it gets into the movie.

  14. This is considered a classic largely due to Rita Hayworth’s portrayal as Gilda!

  15. himes emie

    Loved to see Rita Hayworth do her sensational ‘Put The Blame On Mame’ number.

    • I don’t think Rita Hayworth gets enough credit for her musical abilities. Her singing in GILDA (’46) and YOU WERE NEVER LOVELIER (1942, with Fred Astaire) has an undeniably alluring and sexy quality which few of her peers could rival.

  16. I’ve never seen this movie, but your article convinced me to go find it.
    Interesting how films had to obey the censors, their crafty lines are good evidence of that.

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