Return to Article Details Film noir and the homoerotic subtext in Gilda

After having watched Gilda (1946), a true Classic of the Classics, I found myself fascinated by the surprisingly heavy homosexual subtext that is embedded in the movie. What was even more surprising is the lack of academic papers written on this particular noir’s important undertones, as it seems that most articles concerned with homosexual content tend to focus on Laura (1944), Farewell, My Lovely (1940) and The Maltese Falcon (1941). The aim of this essay is to attempt the queer reading of the Ballin/Johnny relationship, with special focus on the body language, imagery and dialogue in selected scenes. I do not wish to give a chronological analysis of events, nor will I focus on the femme fatal character of Gilda. With a deeper look at Ballin’s character as the “evil gay villain” trope, I will examine the typical characteristics of the Classic Hollywood noir era that painted a destructively negative portrait of gay men. The ending of Gilda is also my subject of investigation, as it interestingly went against the direction the whole movie was heading to. The apparently rushed “happy ending” makes little sense and does not suit its genre after an hour and a half of regression, and both subconscious and conscious fight against one’s identity and needs. The homosexual subtext is so prominent in Gilda on both the level of the dialogue and body language, that one might wonder how the movie managed to slip through the censors’ tight fingers and get the green light for its release, since portraying homosexuality on screen was a strictly taboo topic in the classic noir era of the 1940-1950s of America. Of course in 1946 the general audience was not accustomed to dominant, noticeable visual representations of queerness, but those with stronger intuition managed to get the hinted references. The fact that whether these representations of gay identity were accurate or right is a different question. Today’s world is a lot more accepting of sexual “difference” and watching this movie in the 21st century allows us a more open and freer interpretation of the characters’ sexuality than it was allowed sixty-eight years ago. For my research I used Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, Lee Edelman’s Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory, and Richard Dyer’s Homosexuality and Film Noir as primary sources.

According to Richard Dyer, the very first images of homosexuality on the big screen were provided by the American film noir, and “these had an important influence on both public ideas about homosexuality and damagingly gay self-images” (Dyer 1977). Film noir’s “Golden Age” existed between the 1940s and 50s and there were strict rules to obey that reflected the moral codes of America. The Hays Production Code, between 1930-1968, banned homosexuality, which was termed “sex perversion” in the Code’s language (Hays Code 1930). Not just homosexuality, but any kind of explicitly shown sexual content was strictly prohibited, among many other things such as adultery, miscegnation, child birth, seduction, rape, etc. Referring to seduction, the Code stated that “they should never be more than suggested, and only when essential for the plot, and even then never shown by explicit method” (Hays Code 1930). In order to escape the rules, the director who was willing to talk about issues such as male homosexuality, had to use alternative methods to express what needed to be expressed. The way the characters looked, dressed and spoke, and the use of certain props and settings all contributed to the portrayal of a queer person. I use the term “queer” because while some of the well known male characters of the Classics were obviously gay, others can be described as bisexual. According to Lee Edelman, the American narrative cinema

needed to invent specifically visual terms through which to represent the homosexual (and particularly the homosexual man), however mediated or veiled such representations had to be, in order to shore up the integrity of those very sexual categories that the explicit depiction of homosexuality as such was thought to subvert. (Edelman 1994, 201)

It was Vito Russo who, in his book titled The Celluloid Closet, traced back the the history of the portrayals of homosexuals in mainstream American films. In his groundbreaking study, Russo analysed how movies looked at gay and lesbian people and portrayed them as the evil, immoral, sexual predators and corrupt villains, namely all that is wrong with society. Edelman describes this process as “constructing a ‘face’ to figure ‘the homosexual’” (Edelman 1994, 201). We can see how everything about the construction of these images is deeply problematic.

Queer people were an integral part of the noir. The reason for that is that the genre’s darkness and gloomy, shadowy atmosphere (both literal/physical and psychological darkness) provided the perfect hideout for the “outlaws” of society. Joe Leydon loosely describes film noir as a type of thriller that “combined crime melodrama, abnormal psychology, sexual insecurity, Cold War paranoia and bizarrely lit, nightmarish camerawork to varying degrees” (Leydon 2013). In a world of chaos, destruction, corruption, failing morals and evil capitalism, which are the distinguishing features of film noir, the subtextual incorporation of homosexuality fit perfectly. Sexual deviance was a dominating trait of the femme fatale and the homosexual man or woman.

Truth, like queerness, irreducibly linked to the "aberrant or atypical," to what chafes against "normalization," finds its value not in a good susceptible to generalization, but only in the stubborn particularity that voids every notion of a general good. (Edelman 2004, 6)

Charles Vidor’s Gilda showcases a strong queer relationship of two men and it is a major driving force of the movie. It is quite heavily implied that the sophisticated, illegal casino owner and gangster, Ballin Mundson (George Macready) has a very intimate bond with the younger, boyishly pretty gambler and later right-hand man, Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford). Johnny is literally a “pickup” by Ballin at the docks, after rescuing him from an angry sailor Johnny cheated in a dice game. The scene is quite telling, as Ballin is represented as an older, wealthy, elegantly dressed man with a cane that hides a sharp blade inside, one that Ballin likes to whip around and point at Johnny. One cannot miss the phallic assocition, as the placement of the cane in Ballin’s hand is held at hip level, pointing it erectly forward. It is quite clear what a rich and stylish man is doing in the middle of the night in the dark alleys of a shady part of town. To use the homosexual slang for a casual pickup, Ballin is out there for a “rough trade” for the night. Film noir operated with symbolism and codes, and such a thing as a long cane disguised as a lethal weapon was a clear indicator of homosexuality. Ballin’s description of his beloved cane is a perfect example of the erotic displacement that the noir operated with, and it is clearly a code for his closeted sexuality, one that Johnny gets immediately and goes along with:

B: It is a faithful and obedient friend, it is silent when I wish to be silent, it talks when I wish to talk.
J: That’s your idea of a friend?
B: That is my idea of a friend.
J: You must lead a gay life.
B: I lead a life I’d like to lead

Their conversation is relaxed and playful, loaded with sexual innuendo and homoerotic gestures, depicting typical elements of a chat up. Ballin takes out a cigarette from his case and offers one to Johnny, which he takes with a smile and lights a match. Johnny lights Balin’s first while keeping eye contact, then lights his own, not breaking the gaze as they are standing close to each other. Smoking can be a sign of sexual display, often used as foreplay, invitation for sex. Johnny knows exactly what kind of game they are playing here, which is emphasized by his knowing looks. Later on in the casino when he is caught cheating, Johnny is holding Ballin’s gaze, letting it move from Ballin’s eyes down the face to the other parts of his body. The constant wandering of his eyes from the other man’s eyes down to his mouth and then back up again is a sign of interest far removed from the world of just business. The ambiguity of the “offer” Johnny makes, to hire him so that “I’d be better gambling on your side,” leaves room for interpretation just alike.

J: Think it over.
B: You know, I think I will. How much time do you give me?
J: Oh, there’s no hurry, you can take a minute or two. Excuse me, while you’re making up your mind.

After Johnny hits the body guard who punched him earlier on, he turns to Ballin and says that now “this way you’ll have two friends (pointing at the cane). You’ve no idea how faithful and obedient I can be. For a nice salary.” His tone of voice and suggestive looks imply a more intimate business here. If one pays attention to Ballins posture and body language during this scene they can see that he is leaning against his desk, with his cane in his hand pointed forward again, towards Johnny. Johnny made this scene for his pleasure, to impress the boss, to show him that he is worth “taking.”

What comes next, I believe is one of the most important conversations in relation to the gay subtext between the two men.

B: This I must be sure of, that there is no woman anywhere.
J: There’s no woman anywhere.
B: Gambling and women do not mix.
J: Those are the very words I use myself. Now shall we quit talking about it?
B: There was one once?
J: Get this, Mr Mundson. I was born last night when you met me in that alley. That way I am no past and all future, see. And I like it that way.

This scene is infused with homoromantic dialogue. I have already established Ballin as a gay man, and I believe Johnny to be bisexual because we know of his romantic associations with Gilda in the past. Glenn Ford himself said in an interview that he and George Macready “knew we were supposed to be playing homosexuals” (Russo 1987, 78). The fact that even the actors were aware of the homosexual aspect of their characters leaves one wondering just how open that closet door was in the noir era. The two men make a toast to the three of them (Johnny, Ballin and the cane), promising that no woman would stand between them and so there begins their relationship, right at the beginning of the story.

This all changes when Ballin, after returning home from an unexpected trip abroad, introduces the glamourous Gilda as his new wife whom he married the day after they first met. “Quite a surprise to hear a woman singing in my house, eh, Johnny?” The introduction of the femme fatal, interestingly does not take away from the homoerotic subtext, but rather gives a new aspect to the relationship of these three people. The triangle adds a twist and the masterful dialogue provides great entertainment in watching how these characters try to figure out one another and the relationship between the participants. Johnny is clearly hurt and jealous, but his behaviour can be read many ways. On the one hand, which is the canonically accepted reading, it is obvious that he and the new Mrs Mundson know each other, which Ballin picks up on immediately, and insinuates his concerns to Johnny about the matter. At this stage of the story, we can assume that it was a relationship that went sour and they both carry resentments towards one another. Their instant “hatred” signifies a more intimate relationship than casual acquaintances. On the other hand, Gilda turns out to be the woman whom Johnny already rejected in the past. It is one possibility to deduce that Gilda’s inherent seductive, alluring, social butterfly kind of behaviour was the reason why Johnny left her in the first place. She might have cheated on Johnny, or he simply was not in love with her, we do not know that but Gilda is shown to be going out with any guy who offers her a drink in order to make Johnny jealous. He knows that Gilda cannot be trusted. His extreme jealousy comes to the surface when, after the introduction, Ballin tells him that

B: You should know, Johnny, that when I want something…
J: You buy it quick (interrupts Ballin).

Referring to their own arrangements, Johnny’s hurt is obvious. The key sentence comes right after Johnny reminds Ballin of their agreement to not let any woman come between them: “My wife does not come under the category of women, Johnny.” This is the signalling that nothing is to be changed between the two of them, because he does not care about Gilda in that way. Johnny, as the narrator of the movie, tells us that he “wanted to go back up into that room and hit her.” “What scared me was that I wanted to hit him too. I wanted to go back and see them together with me not watching. I wanted to know.” Johnny’s secret desire to watch them together without them knowing only strenghtens the reveal of his bisexuality. He later says that the cane containing the deadly blade, which used to be the third party, was a woman to him, to the surprise of Ballin, because “it looks like one thing, then right in front of your eyes it becomes another thing”. This comment adds to the obvious that Gilda is not to be trusted, another hint Johnny intends for Ballin, because she is not what people think she is. It is also possible that it was Gilda who made Johnny turn away from women, as hinted by Ballin himself at the table. In a previous scene Johnny tells Gilda that he knows she married Ballin for his money and not out of love, to which she replies that then they are both bought and kept by Ballin. In noir, the femme fatal and gay men are often portrayed similarly in their behavioural traits, love for luxury and aspects of decadence.

Johnny shows such protectiveness towards Ballin’s safety and his well-being that it is impossible to not pick up on the underlying meaning. “I don’t care what you do, but I’m gonna see to it that it looks alright to him,” tells Johnny to the woman, after another night out with a man. The story’s omniscient figure is Uncle Pio who always says out loud what should seem obvious for the audience (“the bird’s eye view, quite often the true one,” as he says). He tells Johnny that “she is very beautiful and very young, and American. You are also young and American, it will be interesting to watch.” The obvious reading for the general audience would be that Johnny and the dangerously beautiful Gilda have feelings for each other, and that them getting together is imminent, a game that will be entertaining to watch. But it reality, Uncle Pio is referring to Ballin’s choice, reflecting Johnny’s fear that Gilda will take him away from him. This is the “gossip” that the old man is talking about, the hinted secret affair of the two men. We do not have to wait long to find out who Johnny choses in a heartbeat.

Pio: Now we’ll see.
J: See what?
P: Whether you are a gentleman, as you say, or a peasant, as I say. The beautiful one is at the bar, she’ll probably have trouble.
J: Really? What kind of trouble?
P: A man. Very good looking. Your source of income is in his office, he will probably have trouble.
J: What kind of trouble?
P: Also a man, not so good looking. (as Johnny leaves him for Ballin’s office, the old man comments) Now we know. You are what I said.

When he needs to decide whether to run and help out Ballin or keep an eye on the flirting Gilda, he choses the first. He is the “peasant”, the queer, the one that deserves no respect from the older washroom attendant. It is all there for the audience to see and read between the lines but still so perfectly coded that it was possible for the movie to cheat the censors. The film suggests that Johnny is in love with Ballin, as it is amplified by the character’s voice-over narration, body language and the ambiguous dialogue.

The fact that Ballin Mundson is clearly a homosexual means that he is also the evil Nazi, the gangster, the man with an abberant sexuality and love for violence. Ballin is an aristocratic German whose casino provides illegal money-laundering for a German tungsten cartel that is run by Nazis. His home is grand and richly decorated, only in need of a gorgeous woman who would be the jewel he could show off to the world, hence his rushed marriage to Gilda, who clearly married him for his money.

The gay men and the femmes fatales share the same decor iconographically. The ideological pairing of male homosexuality with luxury and decadence (with connotations of impotence and sterility) is of a piece with the acceptable linking of women with luxury… (Dyer 1977)

The subtext implies a violent, sadomasochistic attitude in connection with Ballin’s sexual practices with Gilda. During the Carnival scene, she is shown with a whip in her hand and later Ballin confesses to her that hate and heat together is a source of pleasure for him. “Hate can be a very exciting emotion. Very exciting. There is a heat in it that one can feel. Hate is the only thing that has ever warmed me.” The “evil gay” character that Hollywood invented is in all its glory in Ballin’s character. And since the sinister gay needs to be punished, Ballin’s corrupt business leads to murder and then to his faked death to escape the police.

“The settling down of the heterosexual couple is often denied us. Alternatively, the heterosexual resolution often appears to be the required ending tacked on to couplings that would seem recipes for marital disaster, especially those between Johnny and Gilda.” (Dyer 1977)

Johnny is bisexual, which means that he can still be “redeemed” for his sins. The movie’s ending makes little sense because none of the tension with the Ballin/Johnny relationship is resolved. Ballin, out of the blue, and clearly, for no reason “comes back from the dead” but only to witness the “happy couple’s” reunion, before being literally stabbed in the back by his own lethal cane in the hands of Pio. Funnily, Uncle Pio then calls Johnny a “gentleman” as he is trying to protect the old man by confessing to Ballin’s murder to the detective who happened to walk in just the right time. The end would not be perfect without letting the “lovebirds” go freely to start a new life. The detective calls Ballin’s death “justifiable homicide,” which clearly is not but they managed to get away with it for the sake of a morally justified heterosexual ending. If this film was shot today, the audience would be shouting “plot holes” and “bad writing.” The only explanation for the sudden happy end can be to justify the immoral and sinful status of homosexuality. To use Richard Dyer’s statement

What Gilda seems to point to is something that most films noir try to keep at bay – that all sexuality or all male sexuality is sick. Where most films noir evoke sick sexuality everywhere except in the hero, Gilda has him caught between gayness, in no way presented positively, and sadomasochism. (Dyer 1977)

It is safe to assume that the sudden happiness of the couple is not going to last for long, as it has previously failed before. Throughout the movie we witnessed mistrust, antagonism, jealousy and the ambition to destroy the other out of sheer pride. It is unlikely that Gilda will change her ways, so is the possibility that Johnny would be able to develop a newfound relationship with her based on trust. The love-to-hate quality of their relationship is too destructive to be the basis of a healthy one.

Film noir seems more like a perspective of its era than a genre. In noir films, the world is disillusioned and broken, there are no more tough heroes and weak women, only flawed characters destroyed by their society’s rotten morals. Even if there is a forced happier ending to the story, it is highly unlikely that the happiness will last. In the case of homosexual representation, these kind of Classic movies did little to ease the deep homophobia of the American society. By reinforcing false, stereotypical images of gay/lesbian/bisexual people they did more damage than good because these long-standing ideals are still present on the big screen.


Works Cited