The Most Toxic of Relationships: “Gilda”
Happy early Friday, Persephoneers! Here I am again with a classic movie pick that my help you to help you start your weekend off right.
Two ex-lovers, determined to start their lives over again in Buenos Aires, find their fates entwined once more because of one man’s scheming in the 1946 film noir, “Gilda.”
Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford), who has just arrived in Buenos Aires, makes his living at gambling. One night, as he is on his way home, he is attacked by a would-be mugger, but a mysterious German man comes to his rescue. This is Ballin Mundson, owner of a casino in town, and he eventually hires Johnny as his right-hand man. A few weeks later, Ballin returns from a long trip, and he has just gotten married as well to an American woman whom he has known only for a day. Gilda (Rita Hayworth), much like Johnny did at the beginning of the movie, tells Ballin, “I was born the night you met me. From now on, there is no past for me, only a future.”
It is apparent that Johnny and Gilda know one another, and as the film progresses, we discover that they were once lovers, and that they parted on such bad terms that they both hate one another. Ballin has assigned Johnny not only to assist closely in running the business, but also in keeping tabs on Gilda. Gilda, of course, is resentful of this, and she does everything she can to make Johnny’s job difficult, including openly flirting with other men. Meanwhile, Mundson’s shady business dealings outside of the casino are starting to come back to haunt him, as it is apparent that there is something that a cadre of former Nazis hiding out in Argentina want from him. And this something is enough to bring about his ostensible suicide just after Johnny and Gilda begin to rekindle their passion for one another. Soon after Mundson’s death, Johnny marries Gilda, only his reasons for the marriage are not the same as hers. He wants to somehow punish Gilda for what he sees as her role in destroying Mundson, and in the end, he grows as mad as Mundson himself.
The film deals with three basic fears: former Nazis holed up in foreign countries planning the rise of another Reich, the femme fatale, and the similarities between love and hate for some and the passion that these emotions can inspire.
“Gilda” was filmed just after World War II, and even though Argentina entered the war at the very end, there were still many pro-Nazi factions in the country. It has been proven that many Nazis were able to escape from Europe and hide out in South America, with the assistance of government officials themselves. Combine this with the cynicism toward big business left over from the Great Depression and the wariness of the corruption in governments outside of the United States, and you have a menacing, intangible villain hulking behind the more obvious villains in the film. The slight hint of this fear pervades every aspect of the film, turning common insecurities into paranoia, as we see with Johnny in his relationship with Gilda. The viewer is unsure of how much Mundson may have actually known about the past relationship between Gilda and Johnny. And two questions always pop up in the back of my mind: Did Mundson orchestrate their reunion for his own purposes? And was Gilda possibly working with the Argentine authorities to further investigate Mundson’s businesses, much as Alicia did while working as an operative in “Notorious”?
Gilda herself is the portrayal of the femme fatale: the beautiful, mysterious temptress who is able to draw the men in her life into her web and destroy them without a care. But this is only Gilda on the outside. Instead, Gilda is really a lonely young woman with a broken heart who wants to start anew. It is only coincidental that she ends up marrying her old lover’s new boss. And this is when she starts acting out, even though, we are assured later, it was only an act all along. Gilda makes her motives known when she tells Johnny, “I hate you so much that I would destroy myself to take you down with me.” It makes the viewer wonder what Johnny may have done to hurt Gilda so, and why she wants to lash out so that she hurts him in the very same way. Regardless, there is still that hint of suspicion behind what Gilda’s true motives are, and even though she made the mistake of getting married to a very wealthy, refined, yet mysterious man on the rebound, her reasons are made to appear superficial. Ballin calls Gilda a “greedy child,” a mercurial, superficial woman who is only out for herself and who doesn’t care about the people she hurts in the process.
And this brings us to the passions that come from both love and hate. The film’s characters often point out the similarities between these two emotions and the things that they inspire in people, because, as Ballin says, “Hate is a very exciting emotion… Hate is the only thing that has ever warmed me.” While we can see that once upon a time Johnny and Gilda must have loved each other very much, they both now hate each other with the same fire. Their hate, born out of something that was once very dear to them, is what fuels their actions toward each other. Yet even their hate for each other seems to abate at points in the film, and there are moments in which they seem to recapture what they feel for one another. Ballin, on the other hand, is a rather cold character, and the only thing that really seems to move him is hate. This is what differentiates Gilda and Johnny from Ballin: while their hatred drives them to be cruel to one another, it did come from gentler feelings. They loved each other very deeply once, and there is the chance that they could recapture that and step back from the edge of the cliff that Ballin jumped from long ago. Their desire to return home to the United States and to stop trying to run away from what they feel for one another gives the viewer some hope for them as a couple.
Of course, watching this from a feminist perspective, it is very easy to see that the relationship between Johnny and Gilda is toxic at best and abusive at worst. The Argentine police officer Obregon sums it up perfectly when he remarks, “It’s the most curious love-hate pattern I’ve ever had the privilege of witnessing.” It is apparent that these two are not good for each other and that it may be best for them to go their separate ways. However, this is a post-World War II film made at a time when marriages were supposed to be more permanent and divorce was absolutely the last resort. It’s only natural that the couple’s ultimate fate would reflect this.
So with “Gilda,” it’s not easy to say “all problems aside.” While it is a wonderful movie, and while Rita Hayworth’s musical performances are a joy to watch, it’s almost like watching a train wreck. Johnny’s and Gilda’s relationship is seriously dysfunctional, much like that couple everyone knows whose relationship is really, really good when it’s good and horrid when it’s bad. But the couple refuses to break up even though they know they should because they love the thrill of the passions inspired by both love and hate throughout the extreme ups and downs of their relationship. Johnny and Gilda might live for the drama, but would I honestly want it? That would be a resounding no!