‘There never was a woman like Gilda‘, proclaimed the poster for Charles Vidor’s classic 1946 film noir, and indeed, the mark that Rita Hayworth’s character left on cinema is indelible. The woman who once sent the inmates of Shawshank State Penitentiary wild with desire has undeniable erotic appeal, but her definition as the archetypal femme fatale belies not only her legitimacy as a rounded character, but also as an empowered narrative agent with a range of complex and often contradictory motivations. Indeed, Hayworth’s famous observation that men ‘wanted to go to bed with Gilda, but woke up with Rita’, is never truer than in the film itself.
Gilda’s thrilling debut in the film comes after Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) meets her at her husband’s casino, with a flick of her hair and a cheeky aside about her decency. Although Hayworth’s obvious and irresistible charms are more likely to induce lustful hollering than sober analysis, we can still reflect on how perfect a character introduction this is; she’s sexy and exciting, yes, but is also ensnared in the performance of her own appeal, unstuck only momentarily by the reappearance of her old lover, Farrell, arriving to work as her husband’s assistant.
Gilda and Farrell’s romantic history is only really alluded to, with shades of Casablanca‘s Rick and Ilsa, but it is the love/hate dynamic of another famous couple that more readily informs Farrell and Gilda’s relationship: that of Heathcliff and Cathy in Emily Bronte’s Gothic novel Wuthering Heights. It’s this hateful loving that underpins the thematic resonance of Gilda, in which the leads are driven by festering resentment and bitterness towards mutual cruelty, and yet are bound to each other by compulsive desire and barely-concealed affection. Their actions are made all the more powerful by retaining the mystery over their past love affair, rendering Gilda’s adulterous posturing all the more pathetic, and her iconic glove-striptease as bittersweet as it is erotic. This is complicated by Farrell’s friendship with Gilda’s husband, Ballin (George Macready), a relationship that edges very close in itself to the romantic; a love triangle where each point really is connected to the other.
To paraphrase that tagline, there really never was an icon like Gilda, but amidst the character’s status as cinematic emblem it’s easy to lose sight of a beautifully drawn woman invested with pathos and humanity. Moreover, while Gilda‘s ending perhaps edges towards easy sentimentality, its story is one of emotional complexity, variant readings, and problematic eroticism. If its thesis isn’t quite as nasty as that of its forbear Wuthering Heights, Gilda remains a brilliantly dark exploration of the consequences of love soured into loathing.