As always, this post contains spoilers, so please don’t read it if you haven’t seen the film.
Despite the film being called Gilda, and Rita Hayworth being marketed or portrayed as the femme fatale of the film, it is perhaps really Johnny Farrell who is the real fulcrum on which Ballin and Gilda’s desire turns. Ballin picks both Johnny and Gilda up, but Ballin and Gilda’s encounter is not shown, no instant connection flares between them as it does with Ballin and Johnny. Yes, this guarantees Rita Hayworth’s now iconic entrance, but it mutes she and Ballin’s tie to one another.
Johnny is first seen playing a dice game with American sailors and Argentinians, and he makes an interesting comment about needing to leave because he knows American sailors. This of course refers to the need to escape being beaten within an inch of his life for gambling with loaded die, but it could also refer to something else. Not much, if anything, is ever revealed about Johnny’s past, or Gilda’s, but this comment suggests that perhaps Johnny doesn’t only know American sailors because of gambling. A grifter who has ended up in South America at the tail end of the Second World War, isn’t exactly likely to be sexually naïve.
When Ballin saves Johnny from being murdered for his winnings, the setting of their meeting is symbolic. An illegal die game is likely to be held in a seedy area, Johnny even asks Ballin what someone like him, in his coat and tails, is doing there, but they also happen to be on the docks. A place that is well known for sexual wares beings exchanged, by both sexes, for cash, especially to wealthy men like Ballin who lead the life they please. Johnny’s behaviour towards Ballin is always deferential, but during their first encounter it is clearly seductive. Johnny lights he and Ballin’s cigarettes with a gaze that is half lidded, almost coquettish. The act of lighting another man’s cigarette is interesting, as usually in films, especially in film noir, a man lights an attractive woman’s cigarette, which symbolises their sexual attraction to one another and her seductiveness.
After Johnny makes his own luck at Ballin’s card table, and gets beaten up for it, he becomes Ballin’s employee. But Ballin has one very strict rule: there must be no women in Johnny’s life, because gambling and women don’t mix. This becomes apparent when Gilda enters the frame, but it’s also likely that Ballin makes Johnny agree to these terms because Ballin’s attraction to Johnny and women don’t mix. This agreement between the two men also suggests that it is not really Gilda who ignites their jealously, but one another, for any intrusion in their relationship is unacceptable. And while Johnny says that Ballin’s cane is a she, it’s quite clear it is a phallic symbol that Ballin makes sure Johnny sees a lot of.
As Darren Mooney, in The Movie Palace podcast episode dedicated to Gilda, points out, Ballin and Johnny also share a clear intimacy. This is most apparent when the war ends and Johnny tells Ballin, “I thought we ought to celebrate, too” over a quiet drink. This office intimacy is mirrored later on, when Johnny says, “It might be a good time for us to go home, Ballin”, as if he and Ballin live together, not Ballin and Gilda. The tone of his request suggests that they have gone home together before, perhaps many times, and Johnny’s desire to stay with Ballin instead of find Gilda, reinforces this. Johnny’s joy at Ballin’s return from his trip, before he discovers Ballin’s marriage, is palpable. “It’s great having him back, isn’t it, Pete?” he happily remarks to a manservant, as if having Ballin around is far more important to Johnny’s peace of mind than being in charge of the casino. And it is clear that Johnny has not broken his promise to Ballin and fraternised with anyone while Ballin’s been away. Johnny’s good humour is instantly shattered by his discovery of Ballin’s marriage to Gilda, most obviously because of he and Gilda’s shared romantic past, but also because Ballin has thrown Johnny over for someone else, and broken their Holy Trinity, which was decidedly masculine up until this point. Johnny’s bitterness at this, and the gender ambiguity of Johnny and Ballin’s relationship is once again highlighted when he gives Gilda his congratulations, as if Ballin is the prize and not Gilda.
Johnny comments on the alacrity of Ballin and Gilda’s union, Ballin replies, “You should know, Johnny, when I want something—” “You buy it quick,” Johnny finishes. During this exchange, and the later one when Ballin entrusts Johnny to the secrets of his tungsten monopoly, it is clear that Johnny and Gilda are both seen as Ballin’s property, that he bought their services as he would a prostitute. Uncle Pio’s dismissive monicker of “peasant” for Johnny could just as easily, it seems, really be prostitute. This aligns Johnny and Gilda as not only Ballin’s possessions, but as objects that fulfil Ballin’s strange sexual desire, which requires that he completely own people, specifically sexual partners, as he never refers to anyone else in the film in this manner. Upon discovering Gilda and Ballin’s marriage, Johnny narrates that he wants to hit both Gilda and Ballin for this betrayal, but that he also wants to indulge in the voyeuristic impulse of watching them being intimate together, as if they were not aware he was present. This makes the object of his desire unclear to the audience. If he solely desired Gilda, surely he would want to watch her in an intimate activity when she was alone. Why does Ballin need to be present if Johnny does not desire him, too? If he has not already seen, and known, Ballin in intimate circumstances.
Gilda and Ballin both make much of Johnny’s youth and desirability, with Ballin assuring Gilda that “I’ll be watching”, as Johnny grows up. This communicates that Ballin will not be taken unawares by Johnny as a potential threat to his marriage and business, but it also reinforces the voyeuristic aspects of the film, as if Johnny is something to be observed by both Gilda and Ballin. Gilda goes on to call Johnny beautiful, which reinforces Johnny as an object of desire, and both Gilda and Ballin’s obsession with him, with their desire to possess someone beautiful and young. Gilda once again highlights a comparison between she and Johnny and their reasons for being involved with Ballin, but in doing so, she uses ambiguous language, which makes it sound as if she and Johnny are both married to Ballin.
After showing Johnny the location of his safe, Ballin asks Johnny what Johnny thinks about Ballin loving Gilda. Perhaps Ballin asks this question to test Johnny’s loyalty, but it seems peculiar that Ballin should bother to ask a paid subordinate what he thinks about Ballin loving his own wife. Ballin perhaps suspects Johnny and Gilda’s past involvement. It is perhaps more likely that Ballin asks Johnny this question because they have been involved with one another, and that Ballin has never expressed any love for Johnny. Ballin is perhaps interested to see whether or not Johnny is jealous of he and Gilda’s involvement, and how Johnny is likely to act out this jealousy.
When Gilda returns home from her supposed tryst with the less than memorable American tourist she picks up in Ballin’s casino to spite Johnny, she makes it clear that Johnny betrayed her love in the past. But it is unclear why he abandoned her. Was it because he is a restless grifter who can’t settle down in once place? If so, why has he tied himself to Ballin in such a permanent way? Or did Johnny cheat on Gilda with another woman? Or perhaps more cutting for, and more explanatory in regards to Gilda’s intense feelings of sexual betrayal, with another man? This could explain why Gilda makes a point of emasculating Johnny later on, by calling his pyjamas a nightgown. She wants to make sure that he knows that she remembers what passed before.
Two instances of ambiguous language also mean that an intimate relationship between Johnny and Ballin is suggested. The first, and most striking, is when Johnny brings Gilda home from a supposed swimming trip that they went on together. Once Gilda has gone upstairs, having backhandedly complimented Johnny’s “swimming” abilities, Ballin says, “Johnny, you’ll have to teach me how.” Johnny’s reply is confused, until Ballin explains that he wants Johnny to “Show me how to swim, of course”. If Ballin suspects that Gilda and Johnny were in fact doing something that was most definitely not swimming, which is heavily implied in this scene, then it seems that he wants Johnny to teach him how to make love. But why would he want Johnny to teach him how to make love when he is married to Gilda? Johnny’s reply that “I taught [Gilda] everything she knows”, makes it sounds as if Johnny has already taught Gilda how to make love, and he therefore becomes even more of a sexual conduit between Gilda and Ballin. It seems that Ballin already recognises this fact, and is taunting Johnny because he knows how similarly Gilda and Johnny make love.
The second instance of ambiguous language is when Gilda tells Johnny that when a person dances with Johnny, it’s like they’re a part of him. It’s interesting that Gilda chooses to use a gender ambiguous noun instead of saying when a woman dances with Johnny. This suggests that Johnny has not only danced with women in the past. Gilda reinforces Johnny’s lack of recent sexual activity with women by commenting that he’s out of practice dancing with women, suggesting that he has perhaps been sexually involved with men, namely Ballin, as it is clear that he has not broken the vow he made to Ballin early on in the film.
When Ballin “dies”, Johnny preserves Ballin’s image, namely the large portrait he hangs in Gilda’s apartment, as one would a dead spouse or an object of obsession. Once again, however, in film noir, it is usually dead women whose images are preserved and obsessed over.
Gilda eventually confronts Johnny about his obsession with Ballin, and how he is using it to punish Gilda for imagined crimes against her dead spouse. This confrontation blurs the lines between Gilda and Ballin and their desire to possess Johnny, as Gilda uses similar language to Ballin by saying that it has only ever been she and Johnny. Ballin makes a similar claim earlier on in the film when he calls Johnny and his cane his little friends. Johnny is jealous of Gilda’s other lovers, as Ballin seems to have been of Johnny’s, but these lovers are largely imagined by both men. When Gilda eventually tries to escape Johnny’s hold over her, the lawyer who she has become involved with, and who eventually betrays her to Johnny, tells her she could obtain an annulment from Johnny, because their marriage has never been consummated. This is because Johnny had wished to punish Gilda, but it could also be for other reasons, such as his wish not to betray Ballin by breaking the vow he made to him early on the film. Johnny seems to prize faithfulness above all else, and he seems to want to remain faithful to Ballin.
Detective Obregon is convinced that Johnny cannot function properly because of his unrealised desire for Gilda, and while this may be partially true, it is also likely that Johnny’s increasingly vulnerable mental state is due to what he perceives as his betrayal of Ballin. He has broken his promise to Ballin that there would be no woman, and in doing so destroyed Ballin’s business enterprises. He has also been unfaithful to Ballin with Ballin’s wife, something which he clearly regretted the moment it came to pass.
At the film’s climax, when Ballin makes his return, he explains his motives for faking his own death, and explains that he wants to kill both Gilda and Johnny. But he makes a point of explaining that initially he wanted to murder Johnny with his cane, which is, as Mooney explains, a deadly phallic and penetrative symbol. Ballin’s desire to murder Gilda is also striking: he wants to kill her because she has been unfaithful to him with another man, but perhaps he also wants to murder her because she has caused Johnny, who had been faithful to Ballin until her arrival, to be unfaithful to him, too. The film ends with Uncle Pio stabbing Ballin to death with his own cane, seemingly closing the ring, and making it clear that Ballin has met his end due to his own destructive desire to possess both Gilda and Johnny.