Gilda: The Lady In Black

20160128031937!Gilda

And there may never be again.

Gilda is a curio. It’s a curio in so many ways, because it doesn’t seem to resemble any of the prototypes we’ve come to know about film noir, even though it is acclaimed that it served as the prototype for that entire genre.

Certainly, Ms. Hayworth plays a femme fatale, but the femme fatale is hollow, only the open and vulnerable heart of a woman spills out. She flourishes in her sexual appeal, but all of it is empty, not even an act, more of a mask which crudely slips off at the slightest moment. Glenn Ford plays the classic, ropey slightly amoral protagonist we have come to expect from the genre, but he if anything, with a separate contextual understand of the film’s original inception and release (1946 was 70 years ago), comes off as the cruelest member of the trio. A man who punishes a woman he is enraptured/repulsed by marrying her and then denying her any contact, with anyone really. I mean that’s grounds for serious psychological trauma.

It was definitely an odd experience trying to decipher the morality of the film, because unlike its successors, which did not preach or moralise, which consigned themselves to futile nihilism often and nothing more, Gilda has two curious points. The first is that Glenn Ford’s personality is quite reprehensible. Not in a vaguely amoral way, in “I’ll take things any way they come”, but at least for me, in quite a visceral gut wrenching way. I rarely find myself disjointed out of a film by its lack of internal consistency, but I did feel a little shifted out by this. The second is its swerving ending, where the characters actually forgive each other, Gilda and Johnny end up heading out of the casino arm in arm, not covered in each others’ blood.

The first is a bit harder to pin down. Why did I feel thrown by Johnny’s actions? Well it’s difficult for me to judge, as I can’t tell how normal it was perceived during the time. For me though, the problem lies mainly in Johnny’s reactions. They just seem incredibly harsh. Blisteringly harsh actually. He begins the film chums with the curiously distant Ballin Mundson, a casino owner who does nothing to engender such friendship from Johnny. In fact Mundson is so far removed from everything and everyone, it doesn’t really feel justified why Johnny is so attracted to him. It might engender the same love you have for a statue, or a great work of art, but Mundson is openly neutral to coldly hostile, that it’s any wonder why Johnny even sticks around, and this is the wellspring of my narrative qualms. The film assumes the back story of Johnny despising Gilda, but without explaining to the audience the reasons for his hatred, it becomes harder and harder to justify in spite of his dogged loyalness to Mundson, a man who returns every friendly gesture with spite or spit, and why he increasingly feels disdain for Gilda, as he continually is forced into embarrassment by having to fetch Gilda from the arms of suave courtiers back to Mundson.

When Johnny finally betrays his friend, kissing his old flame, he experiences none of the guilt or wretchedness one might feel in such an act, instead he suppresses his own feelings and projects his anger and perhaps his self loathing onto her, the cruel vile temptress who is responsible for his friend’s apparent suicide. Why though, why on Earth, does he do this to her? Rita Hayworth’s femme fatale is so unreasonable a figure to project such a violent hate. She does not betray him, only entices him because she loves him so. She has no ulterior motives, no political allegiances or subterfuges planned, she simply loves him obsessively, self destructively even. And he does nothing but spit and spite.

In fact Johnny’s treatment of her is downright the denial of all responsibilities of loving someone. The template of the seductress, ready to be punished for her sinfulness, is awkward and stilted here, because it’s so unjustified. Mundson doesn’t respect her, only as property. Johnny hates her, and doesn’t respect her, but hate loves her because of some curiosity in the past.

The sexism/misogyny (two different words which both apply here, am not confusing the two) of film noir has been talked about endlessly so the natural assumption is to assume the writer simply projected his insecurities and themes he wanted to impress of what he thought about women. But what kind of mindset would a writer have to have to construct such a turn of events? The second half of the film languishes in the act of imprisonment Johnny imposes on her, utilising montages and over head narration which helps to drag out the acute details of how she is punished by the imprisonment, just in case you missed it by the acting.

This all leaves me with a gap of confusion.The femme fatale is an archetype which can trace its roots long before Rita Hayworth, but nevertheless the image of Gilda in her black dress has endured as a symbol of such raw sexuality, of feminine allure and seduction. In the wikipedia entry for Femme Fatale , Gilda is described as a “narcissistic wife who manipulates her husband.” How can Gilda be summed up in that way? She entices Johnny, but Johnny is not a robot. Johnny is enticed by her, otherwise he wouldn’t have been with her, or ended up with her. So who’s manipulating who here? When Gilda’s only crime is loving Johnny and being restless? Perhaps that is why Johnny’s punishment, at least to me seemed so cruel.

Any who I didn’t like Johnny, and I liked Gilda (both the film and the character). It’s an exploration of hate and love and adoration and destruction, and how they all blend together. I don’t have much else to say about the film, so I’ll end it with an absolutely stunning and elegant use of framing, which tells us all we need to know about the triumvirate of lovers.

-Alex

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Gilda: The Lady In Black

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