Saturday, October 8, 2016
SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.
The plot isn’t really what’s important in this 1946 film noir tale. It’s really about the love triangle between the three main characters, or better yet, the love-hate relationships bonding them together.
We first see Johnny Farrell (Glen Ford), the occasional narrator, playing dice with sailors in Buenos Aires. (The foreign locale was required to allow the film to get some of its sexual promiscuity passed the censors, apparently it being permissible if set outside the U. S.). After he leaves the game he is threatened by a man with a gun. However, another man who turns out to be Ballin Mundson (George Macready) saves him with the use of a walking stick with a sharp blade at its end. Ballin knows that Johnny was cheating, but invites him to gamble at a casino. Johnny shows up there and continues his deceptive ways at card playing. We learn that it is Ballin’s casino. Johnny persuades Ballin to hire him since through personal experience he knows how to keep the place secure. The two earn each other’s trust, and Johnny becomes a loyal friend.
Even though the two agreed that gambling and women don’t mix, Ballin brings home a woman by the name of Gilda (Rita Hayworth) and says he married her. There is animosity between her and Johnny from the start, and we realize, as does Ballin, that the two were involved in the past, and what was love between them has turned to hate. But, hate is a strong emotion, as opposed to indifference, and it implies that for it to exist means that the people have not really moved on. This point is illustrated when Johnny says “I hated her so I couldn’t get her out of my mind for a minute.” Gilda, tries to reassure Ballin that he doesn’t have to worry about Johnny because, “I hate him.” Ballin says in response, “And he hates you. That’s very apparent. But hate can be a very exciting emotion … There’s heat in it … Hate is the only thing that has ever warmed me.” Here, Ballin seems to prefer the emotion of hate, the primal ferocity of it. Gilda echoes what Ballin has said when she says to Johnny, “Hate is a very exciting emotion … I hate you so much I think I’m going to die from it.” She then kissed Johnny passionately, showing that love and hate seem to be fueled by the same fire.
Gilda is a film noir femme fatale, but she doesn’t quite fit the role of unfettered manipulator of men. Yes, her flirtatious flings drive males crazy. She obviously hurt Johnny with her sexual ways. And, she cavorts with several men while married to Ballin. But, there are references in the movie about how she has been caged. She is called a canary (is she a bird in a gilded – with a play on ‘Gilda’ – cage?). She breaks the glass in a door at one point with a chair, as if trying to escape her prison. It’s as if she has painted herself into a corner with her sexual role-playing. The very dresses that accentuate her physical beauty confine her, and she asks for help so she can be bound, almost ironically allowing her captivity. She implies that this action is symbolic of her situation when she says, “I can never get a zipper to close. Maybe that stands for something, what do you think?” Ballin disappears after he fakes his own death following his killing a man because of his tungsten cartel business. Johnny marries Gilda, but treats her badly because he still is angry with her. She tries to escape, but he hires a man to romance her and hurt her by bringing her back to Johnny’s cage.
There is also a subtext in the movie involving sexual identity, which even actor Glen Ford admitted existed. Why is Ballin trolling the docks at the beginning? Is he really looking to hook up with sailors? He keeps referring to that blade-tipped phallic-shaped cane of his (the use of a knife as a substitute for the male penis was used in Peeping Tom and Psycho). He calls it “a most faithful and obedient friend: it is silent when I want it to be silent, but talks when I want to talk.” Johnny asks him if that is his idea of a friend, and Ballin says it is. Johnny says then, “You must lead a gay life.” Now, of course “gay” back then did not have the connotations it does now. Ballin is basically telling Johnny to be like his weapon/friend, to be quiet and to talk at his command. And Johnny is telling him his life isn’t very much fun if he wants to have that much control over his friends, the word “gay” used ironically. But, the sexual symbol of the sword seems to be the object that connects the two, since it saved Johnny once and now is meant to join the two in their relationship. The two become very close, with Ballin having Johnny take over the casino when he is gone and giving him access to the private papers in his safe. Johnny wants to stop Gilda initially from philandering because he wants to protect Ballin and later punishes Gilda for cheating on his boss after Ballin’s supposed death. Also, Gilda says at one point that Johnny is in his “nightgown” instead of saying his “pajamas.” This word usage paints Johnny in a feminine, not masculine way. Even Gilda’s femininity is called into question when Johnny says “congratulations” to her after finding out about the marriage to Ballin. He is corrected because the groom is the one that is congratulated, and the bride should receive a wish for good luck. The masquerade that occurs at Ballin’s house is a plot device to hide actions, but can also hint at the possibility that the main characters are hiding sexual aspects about themselves that exist beneath the façade.
Ballin returns at the end to murder Johnnie and Gilda, but he is killed with his own walking stick by Uncle Pio (Steven Geray), the only person in the story who is completely honest in his comments about the main characters. Johnnie tells her, “I want to go with you Gilda. Please take me. I know I did everything wrong.” She says, “Nobody has to apologize. We were both stinkers, weren’t we?” The leave together. But, remember that Johnnie once said, thinking of Gilda, that “Statistics show there are more women in the world than anything else. Except insects.” And, Gilda said, “If I’d been a ranch, they would’ve named me ‘The Bar Nothing.’” The hate part of their relationship seems to be the most sustainable one. Somehow I don’t think this is a “they lived happily forever after” ending.
The next film is Deliverance.