So it was my pick for movie night, and my choice was going to be Otto Preminger's Laura, given as I'm all about Noir lately, but all the copies at my local store were out! So I asked the guy behind the counter [who is knowledgeable, not just some Blockbuster kid] for another noir, and he recommended this one. I had seen it decades ago, and knew it was supposed to have a gay subtext, and had been meaning to re-evaluate it anyway, so I snapped it up!
We are in Argentina. We meet Glenn Ford as Johnny Farrell, who wins a ton of money at craps. He says he knows when to leave, and sure enough, he gets mugged on what appears to be a cargo pier or something. He is saved by Ballin Mundson, in much finer clothes than Johnny, and with his "friend," a came with a retractable knife that comes out the end. Ballin gives Johnny his card, and soon Johnny shows up at Ballin's casino. He cheats at cards, and gets brought up to see Ballin, where he makes a play to be brought on staff. He rises up to be Ballin's second in charge, and things seem to be going well.
Then Ballin goes on vacation, and when he returns, he has brought his new wife, Gilda, played by Rita Hayworth. They take an immediate dislike to each other, seemingly because they knew each other before. Gilda tells Ballin that she "was born on the night she met him," which is exactly what Johnny told him earlier. The three of them soon share a drink, and have a toast to "the three of us," which echoes an earlier toast Johnny and Ballin shared, only in that one, the third party was Ballin's other "best friend," his cane with the hidden knife.
Soon Johnny notices that Ballin is paying off the local police force, and also meeting with these Nazi's. He is also put in charge of minding Gilda, who Ballin explicitly considers—and refers to—as a "possession." He tells Johnny "I bought her—just as I bought you." But Gilda wants to make Johnny's job as difficult as possible, so she starts playing the strumpet, running around with any man that suits her fancy, forcing Johnny to cover for her. She says to one of her beaus: "If I had been a ranch, they would have named me the Bar Nothing." Johnny tells her that she can do whatever she wants with anyone she wants, but he'll drop her off and pick her up. Johnny believes that Ballin really loves Gilda, and makes keeping her running around a secret his top priority. Gilda makes no secret of doing all this to get back at Johnny, who apparently broke her heart, and says "I hate you so much I would destroy myself to take you down with me." By the way, there's a LOT of talk about how hate is really the same thing as love, and hate is the most exciting emotion, etc.
SPOILERS > > >
So it seems that Ballin has become the head of some tungsten cartel, which has to do with material to make filaments for light bulbs, and since the war has just ended, these are in short supply. Ballin was just supposed to control the cartel in name only, but once the war is over, he decides to run it for real, and won't cede control. He tells Johnny where the papers are. Ballin has always suspected that Johnny and Gilda are having an affair, although they haven't touched each other. He is going to take off with Gilda, but he sees her and Johnny kissing for like the first time, and takes off. He escapes in a plane, which immediately crashes in the ocean. But we see that he was picked up out of the water by a waiting boat.
So with Ballin out of the way, Johnny and Gilda get married! Only… he's not going to let her forget him. Johnny has set himself up as Gilda's punisher, and he ignores her, while ensuring that she can't go out with anyone else, keeping her in "her own gilded cage," faithful to Ballin in death the way she never was in life. Wow, what a cock this guy is. She even tries to run away, but he traps her into coming back. Meanwhile, he has decided to take over the Tungsten cartel himself, and refuses to give it over—until the police step in, and threaten him with jail. So he's going to hand it over, and on the way, the policeman tells him that he's a moron, because all that time, Gilda was never out fooling around with anyone. He goes to her and they decide that they will return to the states together, her having forgiven him—she says neither of them need apologize, since they both acted horribly. And you at home, in the present day, may think "Uh, yeah, but he acted a LOT worse than she did…" but of course, this would be through our modern morals. So they're ready to run away and be happy with the one they love but—Why, Ballin! I thought you were dead! < < < SPOILERS END
This is one of those movies that is such a strange shape that you really start to wonder what it's about, and the only way it really makes sense is through some sort of subtext. If you look at it straightforwardly, it's just the tale of one woman's mental torture at the hands of two men, and not a very interesting film. So there has to be more. Only… I'm afraid I really can't work up the interest to puzzle out the subtext that's here. Here's what we do know: There is indeed some sort of homo subtext to Johnny and Ballin's relationship. Ballin was a well-to-do guy hanging around the docks for some reason, some suspicious reason, and he essentially picks Johnny up—by using his phallic POLE, that shoots out a phallic knife. He refers to this as his "best friend," and Johnny is his other "best friend." Johnny tells him that he was "born that night." He soon rises up to be Ballin's second-in-command. Now, none of this is to mention the many significant looks that are exchanged throughout, between the two men. Then Ballin marries Gilda. Johnny doesn't like it one bit—and seems to be insanely jealous. We soon find out that Ballin is not having sex with Gilda. Johnny goes through a great deal of trouble to ensure that Ballin never learns that Gilda is cheating on him—it becomes very clear that Johnny is devoted to Ballin's happiness above all else. Ironically, this makes Ballin think that Johnny IS having an affair with Gilda, and he leaves, deceiving both of them. Johnny marries Gilda, but only to further force her to be faithful to Ballin. It is only after Ballin betrays them both, and Johnny finds out that Gilda is not the tramp he thinks she is, that he is able to shift his attentions to her and love her. So it's almost as though Johnny and Ballin are in love, and Ballin installs Gilda in order to test Johnny's devotion to him. And throughout, Gilda is just bewildered… here she is, a gorgeous bombshell, and none of the men are really interested in her.
So that's the much-discussed homo subtext. Thing is, I would bet you dollars to doughnuts that it's all part of a larger subtext that includes the political stuff as well… Ballin was given charge of this cartel, then decided he didn't want to give it back. There's a lot of stuff with allegiances to the Nazi's and the Argentine police. And there's the people [Gilda, Johnny] who one thinks are being unfaithful, but are not, and people who were trusted to give up alliances, but don't. I can't say what it's all about at all, but it's certainly more than it seems.
Is it enjoyable to watch? Well, it's not UN-enjoyable, but you might come away with the feeling that you somehow missed what it was about, more than anything. It can also make you a bit angry at the treatment Gilda receives, given the way our morals have changed. Should she really be put through so much anguish just because she flirts with a few men? Is that really "just as awful" as the torture she is put through? I don't think so, but clearly the point-of-view of the movie is that it is. Loose women—civilization's curse!
Anyway, more puzzling than anything, but I'm not sorry I saw it.
If you like 40s melodramas, puzzling out gay subtexts, and glamorous women.