I might have to re-watch Gilda, because when I watched it last week I was so busy trying to figure it out that I didn’t give myself any space to enjoy it. But it was so different from what I was expecting; it’s like two movies blended together.
Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is a scrappy gambler, drifting in Argentina during WWII (the fact that he isn’t at war says something about his character already – practically every American male of his age was in uniform at the time). He is nearly mugged, but is rescued by Ballin Mundson (George Macready), a wealthy and mysterious man who runs a casino. After Johnny visits the casino and gets caught out in a little cheating, he convinces Ballin to hire him and works his way up to become Ballin’s right-hand man.
Johnny thinks he’s got a good thing going and is extraordinarily loyal to Ballin, but his world is upset when Ballin returns from a trip with a wife, Gilda (Rita Hayworth). Johnny and Gilda used to know each other very well and she immediately sets out to torment Johnny and make him jealous. To make things worse, Ballin has a few things up his sleeve that he is not telling Johnny, like certain dealings with ex-Nazis (WWII is now over). There is also a policeman (Joseph Calleia), who is watching Ballin.
In relation to Gilda, I had most often heard that it was about the intensely heated love-hate relationship between Johnny and Gilda. As Gilda tells Johnny at one point, “I hate you so much; I think I’m going to die from it.” Johnny likewise is always telling her and Ballin that he hates her. Why? This isn’t clear. Evidently they had an affair, but he abandoned her. It made my sister think of the story in the Bible (2 Samuel 13) where Amnon rapes his half-sister, Tamar, and than hates her for it. But it’s clear that Gilda is still crazy about Johnny.
But this isn’t what the first half of the movie is about. This is dealt with in the second half. In the first half, Johnny seems to have a huge hero-worship/crush on Ballin. He even has a key to Ballin’s house, which he returns when Ballin unexpectedly marries. He thinks Ballin tells him everything and seems just as hurt that Ballin married as he does that Gilda is trying to make him jealous. He never questions Ballin’s highly questionable ethics and goes out of his way to spare Ballin any concern over Gilda, who is definitely not being faithful to him. He even admires Ballin’s pseudo-fascist purpose of ruling the world and does everything to protect him from the police and others.
I think Johnny’s trying to be Ballin. After Ballin supposedly dies (he fakes his death), Johnny takes over the business, including the business with the ex-Nazis. The thing is, he’s really in over his head and he doesn’t know it. He doesn’t have Ballin’s sagacity or knowledge or education. He’s just a scrappy guy who knows how to get by in life. It’s not even clear he fully understands what kind of a man Ballin is; what the consequences really would be if Ballin succeeds in his (somewhat fuzzy) goals. For a while, I thought the film was going to be about how Johnny tries be like Ballin and discovers how far short he comes.
But the film never develops any of this. Instead, it turns to the relationship between Johnny and Gilda. After Ballin supposedly dies, Johnny marries Gilda. It’s clear she always loved him and thinks their going to be happy now, but Johnny rather cruelly marries her just so he can control her. He stays completely away from her and uses his power and men to prevent her from going out with other men (her main means of getting back at people), even having her followed everywhere. He puts a picture of Ballin in their house, which she considers in bad taste (not “decent,” is the word she uses, which he uses to mock her with, since she is not “decent”).
So, why is he doing this? Supposedly because he was driven crazy by her infidelities. He’s certainly obsessed with the fact that she’s a tramp. But Johnny says (in a voice-over) that he’s doing it to make her faithful to Ballin in death, even if she couldn’t be faithful to him when he was alive. Before Ballin’s supposed death, Ballin saw Johnny and Gilda making out, so perhaps Johnny feels like he betrayed Ballin, too.
Unfortunately, I thought the ending of the film was kind of a fizzle. Johnny has gotten himself in so deep, trying to run Ballin’s business, and goes too far in his persecution of Gilda. And he gets of scot-free. He never seems to have to face up to the enormity of what he’s done, what kind of a man Ballin really is, or how cruelly he’s used Gilda. She even tries to leave him and get a divorce, only to have him use another man to trick her into coming back, where he refuses her the divorce. She’s on her knees begging him to let her go and I almost hated him. But instead, the policeman fixes everything and Johnny faces no consequences and the policeman even manages to fix up Johnny’s love life with Gilda so that they can be together. It even turns out that Gilda was never really cheating on him or Ballin at all – that was just an act to make him jealous.
It seemed to take all the steam out of the story. The script turns Ballin into a slightly deranged, jealous husband at the end, instead of the cool and calculating man he always was before. Ballin is an interesting character. He tells Johnny that he’s “mad about” Gilda, but it’s hard to see that he really is. He seems to go out of his way to make Johnny and Gilda spend time together, even though he knows instantly that the two of them have a past. He even makes Gilda his heir and Johnny the executor of his will, ensuring they will continue to spent time together. He’s like a puppet-master, always watching them. He also seems to frequently be shot in shadows or be off screen entirely (in one shot, his head is cut off by the camera), though we hear his voice. The camera will be fixed on Johnny or Gilda, but we hear his cold voice interrogating them, like a god who’s slightly amused by the doings of the little people.
By far the most sympathetic person in the story is Gilda. I’ve heard her role described as that of a femme fatale, but most of the time she’s being controlled or abused by the men in the story. I don’t think she makes a very convincing hardcore femme fatale anyway (like in Blood and Sand, she just doesn’t have the steel her soul like Barbara Stanwyck and others), but she does vulnerable and broken extremely well and as Gilda, she had all my sympathy. Even the famously sexy dance, “Put the Blame on Mame,” where she does the tantalizing strip tease while removing only one glove, is still a performance filled with pathos, because she wants to hurt Johnny so much that she’s willing to expose herself as a tramp to do it.
She seems to be looking for a man she can trust. After she flees Johnny, she finds another man who purports to love her and says he can help her get a divorce and will take care of her. The relief on her face as she talks about how she thought she could never trust a man again is so sad, because we know the man is employed by Johnny. At this point I was rooting so hard for Johnny and Gilda not to get back together at the end. I was hoping that Johnny would get taken down and be revealed as “the peasant” that the janitor, Uncle Pio (Steven Geray) always said he was. Incidentally, Uncle Pio seems to be the only person Gilda can act normally with. She smiles, thanks him and generally seems relaxed, like she’s not putting on the act she is always playing for Ballin and Johnny.
It’s a sensational performance by Rita Hayworth, one of the best I’ve seen her give. But because of the ending, I was left feeling somewhat unsatisfied.
Below is a clip of Hayworth performing “Put the Blame on Mame,” though that is not her singing.