It’s really, really hard not to read the homoerotic subtext of Gilda when, five minutes in, a man rescues a gambler from certain death using a very phallic-looking cane—a cane that also conceals a knife. Later on, the man with the cane reveals that he has a safe concealed underneath his portrait, and he lets his friend in on the combination (ahem). So is it any wonder that, when the former marries a tempestuous siren, the latter seethes with jealous fury?
Okay, he and the dame had a history, but what if he’s also mad that she’s taken away his saviour, friend and boss? That she’s come between two men who were otherwise in a good working relationship? This triangle may never have been about Gilda at all. Maybe the match that was always front and centre was really between Johnny and Ballin. Card sharp and casino owner. Both a bit crooked, but also two halves of a whole. The scene where Gilda and Johnny return to Ballin’s after a night of “swimming,” with Ballin shot entirely in shadow compared to Johnny, is a case in point.
The conventional reading of this film is too misogynistic for me. Another one of those pictures about wild women needing to be put into place before they understand that the men who hate them are the only ones they’ve got. I will say that the love-hate dynamic between Gilda and Johnny never feels artificial—you get the sense that they truly detest one another, and yet are also madly in love. It’s just that it’s hardly a question of which side to choose, because Johnny never stops being a piece of shit until the final minute.
Gilda, meanwhile, is the femme fatale you simply cannot get enough of, thanks to Rita Hayworth’s supremely sexy and cunning performance. She’s dangerous and cool, and you can’t help but cheer her on as she one-ups the men around her. It’s a shame the romantic stipulations of the script forced her to accept Johnny when she could’ve just walked away to do as she pleased. There’s nothing satisfying about her settling for a man who engaged in psychological abuse. Maybe back then no one cared. Maybe back then, people thought Johnny was doing her a favour. Now, it leaves you queasy.
So let’s pursue the homoerotic interpretation. Let Gilda the film be about the unspoken feelings between two men whose relationship is tested by Gilda the woman, the truest picture of heteronormativity. Gilda retains her subjectivity, but she also becomes something of a MacGuffin. Her sheer presence is all that is needed to set off the sparks, and what ensues between the two men in her life becomes far more interesting than the despicable things they do to her.