Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Film Noir & The Subtext of Gilda

Why is it so hard to define film noir? I'll tell you exactly what it is:

It’s the bad girl of cinema.


I finished a rather good book:
Film Noir, by Andrew Spicer. If you’re ever contemplating a noir for your next script, then forget about the screenwriting how-to clap-trap. Turn to the film scholars. Study the GENRE. That’s more crucial than anything a guru will ever tell you.

And Spicer’s book will give you just the right foundation to what is arguably the most argued about, indefinable genre in film history. Spicer covers the classical period, as well as the modern and postmodern neo-noirs. I didn’t agree with everything he wrote. Noir is so indefinable that sometimes people tend to put too many films under the noir banner, particularly when it comes to the thrillers of the ‘90’s. However, Spicer covers all the common themes, narrative strategies, and character types in noirs. Did you know that there were not only the infamous femme fatales, but also homme fatals, the deadly male counterpart? We’re talking bad, bad boys like Cary Grant in Suspicion, Robert Taylor in Undercurrent or Bogart in The Two Mrs Carrolls.

But they're not as much fun as the femme fatales. From the book:

“The figure of the deadly female – femme fatale/spider woman/vamp – emerged as a central figure in the nineteenth century and became one of the most persistent incarnations of modern femininity, the woman who ‘never really is what she seems to be’ and is therefore, in a patriarchal culture, ungovernable and threatening. The femme fatale was a frequent character in the 1940s film noirs, but all but vanishes in the 1950s, another indication of noir’s shift in direction. Rita Hayworth as The Lady from Shanghai (1948) – film noir’s most enigmatic example – embodies the Orientalism that Mary Ann Doane notes as part of a type whose appearance ‘marks the confluence of modernity, urbanization, Freudian psychoanalysis and new technologies of production and reproduction (photography, the cinema)’. As overpoweringly desirable, duplicitous and sexually insatiable, the femme fatale has been interpreted as a symptom of male anxieties about women, a creature who threatens to castrate and devour her male victim. Janey Place sees the figure as the male protagonist’s Doppelgänger which emerges at night to destroy him: ‘The sexual, dangerous woman lives in this darkness, and she is the psychological expression of his own internal fears of sexuality, and his need to control and repress it’. Her appearance is always explicitly sexual with long dark or blonde hair worn loose, long, sensuous legs, heavy make-up, jewellery that sparkles, and revealing costumes. Noir’s femme fatale as prefigured in Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), is the ‘woman of the city’, incarnating the sexual pleasures of modern urban life. As Molly Haskell observes, as an American copy of a European original, noir’s femme fatale is ‘allied not with the dark forces of nature, but with the green forces of capitalist economy’. She represents an explicit challenge to the postwar consensus that women should be fulfilled by the roles of wife and mother.”

Great, great fun.
Check it out.


After reading a brief chapter on Gilda, I just HAD to watch it and was pleasantly surprised to discover one can view it instantly on Netflix. Instant gratification! Woo hoo! Spicer wrote that Rita Hayworth’s Gilda did not technically fall under the femme fatale character (true) but that she falls under the category of good-bad girl. I wholly disagree. She’s no good-bad girl. She’s the bad-very bad girl. Hehehe

In any case, I’d like to share my carelessly slapped together transcripts of two scenes from Gilda, because the subtext was SO much fun. It was reminiscent of MaryAn Batchellor’s
subtext example from Raiders. Let me set this up: down-n-out Johnny Farrell is taken-in by casino owner Ballin Mundson. Over time, Johnny moves up in the ranks to run Ballin’s casino. Ballin goes away for a trip and returns married to Gilda. This is the scene where Ballin introduces Johnny to Gilda. Ballin is desperate for everyone to get along and become one, big, happy family. The glory of this dialogue comes from how Johnny and Gilda obviously know each other, obviously have a past, and obviously have a raging hatred for each other. But they never say it.

Johnny and Ballin walk toward the Master Bedroom. Gilda can be heard singing in the distance.

Ballin: Quite a surprise to hear a woman singing in my house, eh, Johnny?

Johnny cocks his head, revealing a faint familiarity to her voice.

Johnny: That’s quite a… quite a surprise.

They enter the bedroom.

Ballin: Gilda. Are you decent?

She flings her hair back.

Gilda: Me?

Johnny and Gilda immediately stare at each other. Gilda covers herself a bit more.

Gilda: Sure, I’m decent.
Ballin: Gilda, this is Johnny Farrell. Johnny, this is Gilda.

The two eye each other. Gilda turns off the radio, strolls up to Johnny holding a cigarette.

Gilda: So this is Johnny Farrell. I’ve heard a lot about you, Johnny Farrell.
Johnny: Really? Now I haven’t heard a word about you.
Gilda: (tisk, tisk sounds) Why Ballin…
Ballin: I wanted to keep it a surprise.
Gilda: Was it a surprise, Mr. Farrell?
Ballin: It certainly was. You should’ve seen his face.
Gilda: Did you tell him what I’m doing here, Ballin?
Ballin: No, I wanted to save that as a surprise, too.
Gilda: Hang on to your hat, Mr. Farrell.
Ballin: Gilda is my wife, Johnny.

Johnny says nothing, stares at Gilda.

Gilda: Mrs. Ballin Mundson, Mr. Farrell. Is that all right?
Johnny: Congratulations.

She doesn’t like it, takes a drag.

Ballin: Oh, you don’t congratulate the bride, Johnny. You congratulate the husband.
Johnny: Really? Well, what are you supposed to say to the bride?
Ballin: You wish her “good luck.”
Johnny: Good luck.
Gilda: Thank you, Mr. Farrell. My husband tells me you’re a great believer in luck.
Ballin: We make our own luck, Johnny and I.
Gilda: I’ll have to try that sometime. I’ll have to try it right now. Tell him to come to dinner tonight with us, Ballin.
Ballin: It’s an order. Come along, Johnny. We ought to let Gilda get dressed. Look your best, my beautiful. This will be the casino’s first glimpse of you.

Ballin kisses her, and all the while, Gilda stares at Johnny.

Gilda: I’ll look my very best, Ballin. (glares at Johnny) I want all the hired help to approve of me. Glad to have met you, Mr. Farrell.
Ballin: His name’s Johnny, Gilda.
Gilda: Oh, I’m sorry. Johnny’s such a hard name to remember and so easy to forget. (closes her eyes) Johnny… (opens her eyes) There. See you later, Mr. Farrell.
Johnny: That’s right, Mrs. Munson.

He smiles and leaves.


And this is the dinner scene.

They talk about a third friend. It’s actually Ballin’s cane, which transforms into a knife. Ballin had used it to save Johnny in the beginning of the film when he took him in. They later toasted to the “three of us,” meaning Johnny, Ballin, and Ballin’s cane. Everything else in this scene is pretty self-explanatory. I especially love the “let’s hate her” bit in the end revealing the subtext of Gilda’s self-loathing.

Ballin finds Johnny and they stroll to the table together where Gilda is already seated.

Ballin: I found him, Gilda. Very elusive chap, our Johnny. Sit down, Johnny.
Gilda: Good evening, Mr. Farrell. You’re looking very beautiful.
Johnny: Good evening, Mrs. Mundson.
Ballin: Can’t you return the compliment, Johnny?
Johnny: (robotically) You’re looking very beautiful.
Gilda: Why, thank you. If there’s anything I love, it’s a spontaneous, impulsive compliment like that. And because you’re so nice, I’m going to show you something. (opens her purse, pulls out a beautiful sparkling, diamond-studded jewelry) My husband gave it to me for a coming home present. (flings it in his face). Isn’t it cute?
Ballin: Fifty thousand pesos and it’s “cute.” Isn’t she fabulous, Johnny?
Johnny: Fabulous. (starts to take a drink.)
Ballin: Wait, Johnny. Let’s drink to us. To the three of us.
Gilda: To the three of us.

Johnny puts his glass down.

Ballin: What’s the matter, Johnny?
Johnny: I get confused.
Ballin: Confused? Why?
Johnny: Well, just a few weeks ago, we drank a toast to the three of us.
Gilda: Well, who was the third one then? Should I be jealous?
Ballin: Hardly, darling. Just a friend of mine.
Gilda: Is it a him or a her?
Ballin: That’s a very interesting question. What do you think, Johnny?
Johnny: A her.
Gilda: Ohhh…
Ballin: Why that conclusion?
Johnny: (looks at Gilda) Because it looks like one thing and then right in front of your eyes, it becomes another thing.

Ballin looks at the two of them, slightly suspicious.

Ballin: Well, you haven’t much faith in the stability of women then have you, Johnny?
Johnny: That’s right.
Ballin: One wonders who the one was that brought our Johnny to this pretty pass? Doesn’t one, Gilda?
Gilda: One does. Let’s hate her. Shall we, Ballin?
Ballin: Let’s. Shall we, Johnny?
Johnny: Let’s. Now that, I’ll drink to.

They all drink. Gilda struggles with her drink, as if she can’t quite swallow it.


Christina said...

Not surprisingly, here are some of my favorite films:

Body Heat
Wild Things
Red Rock West
Romeo is Bleeding
The Last Seduction
The Lair of the White Worm

And even, Femme Fatale.

Laura Deerfield said...

I love Gilda. It was the film that inspired me to color my hair red. My Rita Hayworth phase.

Film Noir is fascinating, especially given the social context (with the men away at war, primary filmgoing audience was mostly women) during which it developed.

I thought Brick did a good job playing with the genre, and the author/director did so mostly by studying Dashiell Hammett.

Mark said...

Over the years there has been many debates whether or not Noir is a 'style' or a 'genre'. I've always sided with the genre (or sub genre) as it does adhere to certain principle story elements. One book I've read points to 'Double Indemnity' as being a film that really defines the genre.

Love Scarlett Street as well! (Fritz Lang and Edward G)

Team Brindle said...

I've always thought of Film Noirs as modern tragedies. They contain modern issues & backdrops, but in the end, the "hero" fails.

I have one Noir idea set in Miami where the protag is a woman who gets involved with a shady club owner. In the end it's revealed that he's actually a good guy & she brings about his downfall. She's a femme fatale who doesn't know she's a femme fatale.

It's going to be a good experiment to see if i can pull that off.

My husband was just watching SHAWSHANK were there's a clip from GILDA. He studied GILDA in film school & mentions it from time to time. I think I'll get him a copy.


Mystery Man said...

Christina - Touch of Evil, baby! One of my favs!

Laura - I liked Gilda quite a bit, but the happy ending felt a bit contrived. Apparently, that was never the intention of the filmmakers and were overruled by the producer who was afraid a tragic ending wouldn't sell. How things never change. But in the context of this story, the only appropriate ending is a tragedy. They were headed for a great big downfall. I do love Hammett. He's got a lot of subtext in the dialogue of his books, which I really loved.

Mark - Scarlet Street, baby! You gotta love Edward G. "The Woman in the Window" was pretty great, too. He gets totally suckered by Joan Bennett. I love that film.

Laura - You're right. They are modern tragedies. Those stories can never end happily. Love the idea. I'm working on a noir, too.

Laura Deerfield said...

It's funny...I had forgotten that the ending was happy. It's been years since I've seen it, and I guess I'd already seen the "right" ending in my head so clearly that it's the one I remember.

(I do this with novels, and am often surprised on re-reading them that entire chapters of the book are not actually in the book.)

Thomas Rufer said...


cmon, film noir is not a genre. it cant be a genre. it is a style.

if it were a genre, then for example Brick wouldnt rely so much on style.

just imagine Brick without all the film noir style in it. Then it would be just another teen flick.

Mystery Man said...

s prisoner - Are you sure about that? There are quite a few common themes and narrative strategies and common characters and characteristics...


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