REAL MEAN CRITTERS

GILDA AND JOHNNY FARRELL

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The policeman and the cloakroom attendant talk about Gilda and Johnny as if they are kids.  Johnny works in a casino, and the place is okay but the local policeman and the cloakroom attendant are know-alls who know nothing. Gilda and Johnny have history. Sweet American kids do not land in Argentina in the middle of the Second World War. Johnny is a gambler, and Gilda sings and dances. Her voice, looks and body entertain men. This man and woman live complicated lives. Gamblers and entertainers, they are suspicious and edgy. Something goes wrong between Gilda and Johnny. It leaves them with damage and real hatred. The damage is a pain but they get used to the hatred.  Balin Mundsen is a dangerous man and a fascist on the make but he provides meal tickets for Gilda and Johnny. He picks up Gilda in a nightclub somewhere and Johnny outside a crapshoot in the docklands of Buenos Aires. That night Mundsen was roaming the streets looking for handsome young men like Johnny. Mundsen owns a casino, and, because Mundsen takes these two pickups home, Gilda and Johnny meet there. The same thing almost happened to Rick and Lisa in a casino in Casablanca.

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Gilda is beautiful and talented but after the bust up with Johnny she needs a powerful man. Mundsen can afford the wardrobe the beauty of Gilda demands, and she likes to flaunt her style. Her clothes are great, and her coats sparkle like lit Christmas trees. Johnny is also partial to the good life. He looks good in a tuxedo and is cool on a dance floor, which is how Gilda and Johnny met way back.   Because he is a gambler, Johnny needs luck. Mundsen talks and acts like a man who has it. He offers Johnny a living. Johnny runs the casino but Mundsen wants more. He likes to wave a cane around as if it is something else. The cane contains a sword. ‘Just the three of us,’ says Mundsen.

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The know-all cloakroom attendant and policeman think that Johnny is just a friend who helps Mundsen run the casino. They tell Johnny that Gilda is not really running around with other men. The wise guys know different.  Johnny and Mundsen share a bedroom, and Gilda is working her way through the queue for her available charms. They have their reasons. Johnny wants a life without women, and Gilda needs to get even with Johnny. Hatred keeps their love alive. Mundsen likes Johnny and Gilda because they are pretty and he understands hatred as well as anyone. ‘Hate is a very exciting emotion,’ says Mundsen,.  ‘Hate is the only thing that ever warmed me.’

So far so good but all three are a little crazy, and that fascist ambition complicates everything.   Someone will lose, and Mundsen has the bad cards. Johnny might have a wrecked heart but he knows Gilda is a knockout. Gilda is the kind of woman whose lies can be believed, and back in 1946 the fascists were still on the losing side. That means goodbye Balin. Gilda and Johnny go home to the USA.  Fifties consumer capitalism helps them live happily ever after.

All that happened in a 1946 Hollywood movie, well, almost.

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Columbia released the film Gilda in 1946. The same year Hitchcock directed Notorious. Casablanca was released in 1942. All three films have a wounded man who is determined to defeat the women who broke his heart. Like Casablanca, the film Gilda is set in a casino.   Both are studio bound films, which means that we do not see a lot of landscape. It is done to save money but it suits the films, especially Gilda. Johnny and Gilda want a retreat and they like money. These are not the kind of people who enjoy sitting in fields. The Rick played by Bogart in Casablanca is a broken idealist.  He is not tempted by anything and has settled for harmless nihilism.  In Gilda there is no idealism to remember. Johnny wants to be rich. He has appetites. This is why he desires Gilda and is also willing to submit to Mundsen. The gay relationship between Johnny and Mundsen is not explicit in Gilda but the hints are strong. The conversation about the cane defines Johnny as an alternative phallus for Mundsen. The cloakroom attendant is an irritant in Gilda but at one point he looks up to the office of Mundsen. The knowing expression on the face of the attendant suggests that the office might also be a bedroom. ‘Your source of income is in his office,’ says the cloakroom attendant.

Johnny is a kept man. Later in his career Glenn Ford was good at playing rugged cowboys. In Gilda he is effete and flirts with George Macready, the actor who plays Mundsen. Gilda and Johnny may love one another but they have a problem. Their bodies are wanted by others, and for various reasons Gilda and Johnny are for sale. Gilda resents Johnny having sex with her husband, and Johnny hates being in love with a woman who is easily flattered and men cannot resist.  Unrestrained appetites create complicated relationships.   The dark photography suggests secrets and guilt. For their relationship to survive, Gilda and Johnny will have to ignore their dubious history. Gilda says something like this at the end of the film. ‘We were both stinkers,’ she says. When Johnny and Mundsen set up home, Johnny says, ‘I am all future and no past and I like it that way.’ Complicated sex can mean fetishism and compulsion. The film has plenty of symbols, the cane, whips, masks, tuxedos and cloaks. The fancy dress party to celebrate the end of the war is an inevitable scene. Gilda and Johnny have not just fallen in love. They have infected one another. It is no surprise that hatred keeps their love alive.

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Watch Gilda and you wonder why we bother each other with sexual desire, except we do. Rita Hayworth was the American sex symbol of the forties. Her  parents were Spanish.  The movie surname may have been picked by someone trying to make a pun about sexual capability. Hayworth had five husbands, and all were unfaithful. ‘Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda and woke up with me.’   She discovered that men who want sex symbols do not settle for fidelity. Once you have had one sex symbol you want another. Rita Hayworth was gorgeous and, because of it, she struggled to find love. She thought that her heart might be her most precious commodity. Dazzled by her beauty no one thought about how she felt. She became an alcoholic. The pressure of work was a factor but a shoulder from a decent man would have helped. And Orson Welles would have been great company at the breakfast table but decent he was not.

When Gilda appears in the movie, her head appears from below the screen. We see the fabulous hair before anything else. The smile and her beauty fill the screen. Johnny is also looking at the floor when we meet him. This time the camera lifts from the dice on the floor to reveal the gambler.   Both Johnny and Gilda have stared at the bottom. There is an irony.  Mundsen is a monster but without him they would have perished.   The supposed happy ending at the end of the film poses a few questions. Johnny thought that a gay relationship with Mundsen would help him forget Gilda except he did not. If that was a difficult period in his life, the future is really complicated because he is taking Gilda home to begin a new life in his homeland. Both Gilda and Johnny will carry the past with them.  Feminist critics have worried over the ending of Gilda. They see a tamed free feminine spirit. But this ignores the equality that now exists in the relationship and the previous attempts of Gilda to reconcile with Johnny. It is the destructive masculine will of Johnny that is broken not the ambition of Gilda. He is reformed and no longer thinks about imitating fascists on the make.

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Final words are needed for the superior Notorious. Because they were released in the same year, neither was available to influence the other, which makes the similarity bewildering. Both films were set in South America, Rio for Notorious and Buenos Aires for Gilda.   The cartel in Gilda is trying to do something sinister with tungsten, and the German spies in Notorious want to use uranium to develop nuclear weapons. In both films the men are vindictive and glamorous and the women are misunderstood and have appalling taste in men.  Despite the antagonism the vindictive heroes are required to rescue the persecuted female and keep their knowledge of each other secret. And if that were not enough to make us wonder, a staircase dominates key scenes in both films. For the people who climb the staircase there is sex at the top of those stairs, some of it unpleasant. Below the stairs these people suffer dread, memory, guilt and resentment. The lucky ones are not allowed on the staircase. They have the privilege of envy.

Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including Horror Pickers a collection of film criticism. His latest novel Choke Bay is available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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