Dir: Charles Vidor
Gen: Looking at Women
In keeping with dominant readings of the genre in film theory, Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946) is a film noir that plays with the motif of the shadow to explore the “darker side” of Western society following the Second World War. Manifest aesthetically through stark and carefully manipulated studio lighting, the psychological concerns of Johnny, Gilda and her husband Ballin seep from the interior world of personal deceit into the exterior world of half-seen, duplicitous activities. The protagonists live, quite literally, in the shadow of their “shady”, criminal pasts. For the Freudian historian Barbara Hales (2007, p.227) this tension exemplifies the role of film noir in post-war Western culture; the femme fatale, namely Rita Hayworth as Gilda, acts as a cipher for the “projection” of social (male) trauma, “re-emerg[ing]” in Hollywood cinema to “overcome” the unspoken anxieties and frailties of contemporaneous spectators. On the surface, Gilda is a film about a wayward woman and the threat that she poses to the business relationship of Johnny and Ballin but, upon closer inspection, it is also a film that makes manifest the unspoken anxieties of a western world shaken by war. The male protagonists are fearful of love and trust; Gilda, practically the only woman to appear in the film, is the personification of their forbidden temptation; and the spectator is hailed by the sirens of Gilda to immerse themselves in a world of fantasy, in which time is suspended and they are thrown into the excitement of unravelling (or indeed undressing) the tantalising, mysterious and emotionally unattainable femme fatale.
The femme fatale is a recurring character in western literature, art and culture, with origins in the morally corrupt figure of Eve who, in Genesis, symbolises the fall of man: she incarnates sin and avarice, the root of all worldly suffering. Her role in cinema has been extensively researched by the film theorist Mary Ann Doane, the author of the seminal text Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis (1991), who concludes that “her most striking characteristic, perhaps, is that she never appears what she seems to be. She harbours a threat which is not…legible, predictable [or] manageable…thus transforming the threat into a secret, something which must be aggressively revealed, unmasked [and] discovered” (Doane 1991, p.1). For Doane, the femme fatale is a morally corrupt character who embodies, rather than represents, deceit; she is a perpetual hindrance to the narrative of the film (Mulvey’s text Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, which will be discussed in the weeks to come, will elaborate on this idea) because she is volatile and leads the calculated reason of man, determined to unravel her secrets, astray.
Following the Second World War, the image of the femme fatale adopted a particular set of motifs that mirrored the changing fashions of the 1940s, including a cigarette, rouged lips, waved hair and geometric (shoulder padded) silhouettes, which were all associated with the new “freedom” of the working woman. Rita Hayworth’s reputation as the “number one pin up for American GIs”, a persona that slipped on and off of the screen, shows that this was not the image of a liberated woman but rather the re-formation of the femme fatale: she dared to smoke, she was as wild as her hair and she was beginning to walk into the silhouette of man…which would swiftly be put to a stop (Ford 2018). In the film, Gilda’s cigarette is referred to, in full double-entendre, as her “frustration”, which she “tosses” away but which “land[s] right on” another man; her consumption of men is just as lethal as her consumption of cigarettes. This metaphor is a trope of classic Hollywood cinema and is famously used in Flesh and The Devil (Brown, 1926), in which Greta Garbo blows out the match of her beau before he has time to light his cigarette. Garbo proclaims that his actions are “an invitation to kiss”: one vice replaced for another.
However, Gilda’s role as femme fatale is complicated by what Hales calls the “divided nature of women” in post-war cinema: she is described by her husband as “a greedy beautiful child”, yet confesses to having been a “professional dancer”, a term known for its sexual implications, by one of her many suitors (Nochlin 1989, p.235). She is caught in an economy of power in which she will always be infantilised by, or subject to, the authority of a man’s gaze.
Indeed, as Gilda’s trapper-disguised-as-lawyer makes clear, “wherever you go for the rest of your life you’ll be tied to him, you’ll never be free”; that is to say, whilst Gilda is defined by the ensnaring gaze of man, a gaze that defines and legitimates her role in Vidor’s film, she will remain trapped. The careful composition of this scene, which ends in a taxi, infers that as the “libre” (free) status of the cab comes to an end, so does that of Gilda.
The issue of the captive male gaze is a recurrent theme in Gilda, but is most noticeable in the famous song and dance scene “Put the blame on Mame”, which is best known in film circles for its daring allusion to strip-tease under the Hays code (1934-66), suggesting that Vidor was not, perhaps, an advocate of female emancipation. In the scene Gilda is surrounded by an immediate circle of men, the gazes of whom are matched by lingering close ups of her face, as well as by an outer circle consisting of Johnny, Ballin and the casino in which she is trapped (without mentioning the enclosing gaze of the camera/viewer). However, throughout the film it is implied that Gilda has trapped herself, having constructed an identity based on sexual manipulation of the opposite sex.
The most worrisome threat posed to Gilda’s male suitors is her transient, spectre like reputation. Virtually playing herself on screen, Rita Hayworth’s Gilda fills the air of Ballin’s casino with excitement and gossip. In keeping with the hype of the star, Hayworth first appears seventeen minutes into the film, introduced off screen like a siren by her deep, silky voice. The viewer knows that Gilda will lure Johnny into troubled water, but it is worth questioning whether it is Gilda, or rather the illusion that she and her male suitors have constructed, that will lead to their eventual downfall. In a world built on illusion and deceit, if one facade falls the rest inevitably follow.
However, what Vidor reveals in Gilda’s final scene is that all realities are constructed and that morality, the question of which is personified by Gilda, is only defined by the context in which it is applied. As Detective Maurice Obregon states in the final sequence, Gilda wasn’t inherently evil, “it was just an act”.
Featuring series curator, Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie and Neon Eye's Calum Mowatt and Caitlin Deery.
Where to watch
The full version of Gilda is available online or in stores across the UK.
Doane, M. (1991) Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge.
Hales, B. (2007) "Projecting Trauma: The Femme Fatale in Weimar and Hollywood Film Noir." Women in German Yearbook 23: 224-43. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/stable/20688286.
Neale, S. (2010) “‘I Can’t Tell Anymore Whether You’re Lying’: Double Indemnity, Human Desire and the Narratology of Femmes Fatales”. In: Hanson H., O’Rawe C., eds., The Femme Fatale: Images, Histories, Contexts. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 187-198.
Nochlin, L. (1989) “Morisot’s Wet Nurse”. In: Women, Art and Power and Other Essays. London: Thames and Hudson.
Ford, L. 2018. “Rita Hayworth: 10 essential films.” Last modified October 18, 2018. https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/lists/rita-hayworth-10-essential-films
Wollstonecraft, M. (2015) A Vindication of the Rights of Women: with Stricture on Political and Moral Subjects. London: Vintage Classics.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kathryn is a fourth year student of a joint degree in History of Art and Art Practice at The University of Edinburgh. Her interest in feminist cinema comes from her belief in political, cultural and social equity, a set of values that she says have often felt uncomfortable alongside popular feminist movements such as "fourth wave" or Taylor Swift "girl gang" feminisms. Kathryn has found that by understanding the roots of female "types", consolidated through literature, cinema and art, she has been able to understand how they are constructed and how her own sense of femininity and womanhood differ.
ABOUT NEON EYE
Neon Eye is a film production company based in Edinburgh. As well as offering a platform for these curations and an accompanying video podcast, the company also creates and produces creative films of varying forms, from documentary to drama, and commercial videos for other companies, individuals, and enterprises.