I never thought of Gilda as a femme fatale. She upheld many of the tropes on a surface level, she was beautiful, alluring and mysterious. Her beauty had the ability to draw a fragile Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) into a world he maybe did not want to be a part of. But she was not dangerous. Johnny was dangerous, and the closer he came to Gilda, the more her sense of autonomy fell apart and the more she withdrew.
Gilda, directed by Charles Vidor, is one of the great examples of onscreen masochism. The film would preface 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 noir, there is an unusual number of sadists within the genre. Films like The Big Heat, Kiss of Death and Double Indemnity see 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.
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.
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.
The film leads up to a final, momentous sequence – the most iconic – as Gilda 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 Rita Hayworth herself would later say, men would go to bed with Gilda and be disappointed to wake up with her. Gilda was a facade, and her outward appearance of beauty and charm hid a fragile person with no real control over her own life or anyone else’s.
Justine 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. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.