I have never thought of Gilda as a femme fatale. She upholds many of the tropes on a surface level; she is beautiful, alluring and mysterious. Gilda’s beauty has the ability to draw a fragile Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) into a world he maybe does not want to be a part of in Charles Vidor’s 1946 film noir. But she isn’t dangerous. Johnny is dangerous, and the closer he comes to Gilda, the more her sense of autonomy falls apart.
Gilda is one of the great examples of onscreen masochism. The film prefaces Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo by over a decade and features a man who seeks to groom a woman into being his Severin… at any cost. Due to the violent nature of film noir, there is an unusual number of sadists within the genre. Movies like Double Indemnity (1944), Kiss of Death (1947) and The Big Heat (1953) feature characters who find pleasure in bringing pain to others. Masochism is less common because the pleasure is replaced by humiliation, and as it reverses and manipulates gender stereotypes, the concept becomes more difficult for audiences to accept and embrace.
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A strong case has been made for Gilda being a film about coded bisexuality and the inherent shame that comes from homosexual sex. The sexual chemistry that exists between Ballin (George Macready) and Johnny is palpable (and beautifully explored in The Celluloid Closet), while Gilda (Rita Hayworth) — more than just getting in the way — becomes the fetishistic object that both men can explore their shameful desire with.
In a healthy sado-masochistic relationship, it is the submissive who has the most power. They are the ones that designate the lines that can’t be crossed; they’re the ones who have the power to say “stop” or “start again.” Farrell is the one in power, but Gilda does not want to be the sadist. Whenever possible, she retreats from scenarios in which Farrell orchestrates to grant her power over him. Farrell mistakes Gilda’s willingness to be an object of voyeurism with her desire to hold power over him beyond that. Their sexual incompatibility sprouts from Johnny’s unwillingness or inability to properly understand Gilda’s desire, as the man obsessively focuses on his own.
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Gilda constantly shifts perspectives of sado-masochistic power structures, and the power balance remains constantly unstable. Gilda has the upper hand while performing, whether on stage or privately. She knows how to command attention and change the direction of a scene. Farrell, with his all-seeing eye, has the power that comes with status, money and a vantage point; his office serves as a 180-degree window into his world. And Ballin? His power comes from his ability to take what he wants. On one hand, he’s brutally selfish, and on the other, he’s unwilling to conform to established mores of taste and responsibility.
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Gilda leads up to a final, momentous sequence — the most iconic — as Hayworth’s character does a strip tease while singing “Put the Blame on Mame.” Gilda is blamed for the men’s downfall when she actually held no autonomy at all. She is the scapegoat, the “disastrous wench” who is ultimately powerless except as a fetish representation of desire. Ironically, as Hayworth herself would later say, men would go to bed with Gilda and be disappointed to wake up with her. Gilda is a facade, and her outward appearance of beauty and charm hides a fragile person with no real control over her own life or anyone else’s.
Justine Peres Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema.