Put The Blame On Mame, Boys: “Gilda”

Ever seen this clip?

It’s from Gilda, a 1946 black-and-white noir directed by Charles Vidor. It is perhaps the most famous clip of Rita Hayworth that exists—and for good reason. It is one of the sexiest scenes ever filmed, and Hayworth plays the sizzling temptress of the title in a movie that is as unique as Gilda is enticing.

The film begins ordinarily enough: Glenn Ford’s Johnny Farrell, a gambler, has just pulled a fast one on a group of sailors in Argentina—and, as Johnny says, he doesn’t know Argentina, but he does know sailors, and knows he’d better get out of there right quick. Unfortunately, he doesn’t make his exit quite quickly enough. The next thing Johnny knows, he’s got a gun to his back, and is being told to give up his recent winnings. Not at all by chance, a man stylishly dressed in black suddenly appears and rescues Johnny using a walking stick that doubles as a small dagger.
As it turns out, this mysterious man is Ballin Mundson, the wealthy owner of a high-end casino in Argentina, played by George Macready. Mundson has been watching Johnny, and, after seeing him trick the sailors out of money with a set of loaded dice, takes a liking to him.

(So the guy’s got strange taste. You want to take it up with him and his walking stick?)

After watching Johnny win a lot—and I mean a lot–of money in his casino, and realizing that he could be a useful “friend” to have around, Mundson makes Johnny the overseer of his casino so that he may jet around the world. On one of these trips, Mundson comes back with a little something extra: A wife. Who just so happens to be incredibly beautiful and irresistible, and sings like a “canary,” as Mundson so affectionately calls her. And since Mundson can’t be around all the time, he wants someone to make sure his little warbler “stays in line.”

Guess who gets the job?

Problem is, Johnny already knows this beauteous bird—a fact he only realizes once he’s already accepted the job as wife-protector. As it turns out, the woman in question is Gilda, Johnny’s old flame from New York. Johnny and Gilda just so happen to hate each other’s guts—and it shows. “Johnny,” says Gilda upon their unwelcome reunion, “is such a hard name to remember and so easy to forget.”

(OUCH. Sheath those claws, kitten!)

This animosity is not lost on Mundson, but he does not put two and two together, and is puzzled at his wife’s behavior towards a man whom he believes to be a stranger to her. While Mundson continues to wonder, Gilda and Johnny continue to actively hate each other.

But is it really hatred they feel for one another? Well, yes. But, at least for Gilda, that hatred is also coupled with love. Gilda goes out of her way to make Johnny jealous by dancing and canoodling with various attractive men on the casino’s dance floor, even going so far as to leave with one of them. And because it is Johnny’s job to watch over her, he always intervenes and pulls her away from these men. This is something Johnny is not at all unhappy to do, because it’s pretty damn obvious he doesn’t like seeing Gilda with other men—he just won’t admit it to anyone, least of all himself.

After weeks of intense emotion and frenzied, hurtful words, Johnny’s guard falls the night of a costume ball at the casino. He and Gilda end up kissing in her bedroom—and Mundson just happens to walk in right when it starts getting good.

Mundson has been having problems of his own with Gilda, especially after he learns that she and Johnny are former sweethearts. So you can imagine what seeing them locked in a passionate embrace might do to him. And that, in Mundson’s case, is suicide—or so it’s made to look. After storming out of the room in a rage, Mundson takes to the skies in his seaplane, and ostensibly flies it straight into the water, where it explodes into flames.

Gilda and Johnny, believing Mundson dead, marry. But, Johnny, as it turns out, is actually the cold-hearted son-of-a-bitch Gilda believes him to be. Does he love her? Maybe. Does he lust after and hate her at once? Absolutely. Not only does he leave her alone from the get-go on purpose, but he makes sure she can never ever see other men. He even goes so far as to hire a man to pretend to fall in love with her, and propose marriage to her—in another country! Quite simply, he takes pleasure in watching her suffer.

As you might imagine, poor Gilda is less than pleased about this. She is a prisoner everywhere she goes, and cannot, even for a minute, experience real freedom. But that’s what makes this movie so interesting to watch. Usually, the gorgeous woman of a Hollywood flick will have some savior, some rescuer of some sort, to help her get out of a terrible situation, or will be able to make her way out by herself. Gilda has neither a rescuer, nor can she escape the many eyes of Johnny’s hired men who happen to be wherever she is.

(Hint: That’s not a coincidence.)

What I simultaneously loved and hated about this film is how quickly the tables turned on Gilda. One minute, she was making Johnny jealous and amusing herself with any man she liked, completely independent, regardless of the fact that she was married; the next, the entire world is her prison. By loving Johnny, Gilda has unwittingly sacrificed her freedom. And, little by little, this sacrifice kills her naturally feisty nature, until Gilda is left a broken, insecure woman.

While this film may seem as though it is about the tumultuous relationship between a gambler and a siren from his past, it is actually more of a tutorial about how to break a confident, independent woman. Granted, to do it with Johnny’s particular touch, you need a lot of money and power, as well as underground connections, but the basic principle is still the same: Make her believe she has nowhere to run, and can’t function on her own. If you’re successful, she’ll come crawling back to you, and submit to your will without a fight.

(Man, this guy’s practically Hitch.)

So while this film may feature a beautiful, interesting, self-reliant woman in the title role, it is all about making sure you understand just how ironic it is that the title is the name of the very woman the movie sets out to break. This is not a film about sexy independence and love experienced by the film’s (supposed) main character. It is about the various ways in which an angry ex-lover may exact revenge on said main character. In fact, Gilda is actually quite a secondary character; she is only the main character in the perverse sense that tormenting her is the entire motivation and drive behind the plot.

And you thought Chinatown was messed up.

I’m sure you saw this coming, but I loved Hayworth in this film. She was absolutely stellar. Not that either Macready or Ford were terrible, by any stretch of the imagination; but they were far outshone by the radiance that is Hayworth. And though her wardrobe is jaw-droppingly lovely—I desperately want this outfit, along with many others I could not find on Google Images—it is Hayworth’s natural sex appeal and clearly strong off-screen personality that makes her glitter. Hayworth’s characterization of Gilda seems to stem from a trait already inherent in herself, which makes her ideal for the part, and makes it easy to understand why this is arguably her most famous, and most fabulous, role.

Oh, notice how I didn’t mention what happens with the whole Mundson-faking-his-death aspect of the plot. Now you’ll have to watch the film.

Yours in confidence,

Film Bitch

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