A protagonist’s introduction on screen often plays an essential role in not only the character’s journey, but in cementing a film’s legacy. Iconic cinematic introductions range from Indiana Jones retrieving the golden idol (and being chased by the rolling boulder) to Vito Corleone taking meetings on the day of his daughter’s wedding. Audience members forever remember these characters, often through the way they are introduced to us on screen. Gilda exemplifies this statement in 1946’s eponymous film noir. Hayworth’s famous introduction is not only iconic to the film’s legacy, but also to the classic character trope of the femme fatale.
In the film, Johnny (Glenn Ford) visits his boss, casino-owning Ballin Mundson (George Macready), after Mundson has been out of town for a few weeks. Going against his previous conviction that “gambling and women don’t mix” Mundson informs Johnny that he has been love-struck by a woman while on vacation. Due to a warning earlier by Mundson to Johnny that both gambling and women are risky business, this arrival of this new woman in the boss’ life, then, is as confusing to the audience as it is to Johnny.
As Mundson walks Johnny into his bedroom, the viewer and Johnny both hear Gilda’s voice, as she sings, before we see her. Johnny’s face transforms from a smile at the idea of a woman bringing joy to his boss, to an unsettled expression of recognition of the singing voice’s owner.
The moment of the complete reveal arrives, as Mudson asks, “Are you decent?”
We cut to a shot of Gilda snapping into the frame and flipping her hair up, over her back.
Through this introduction to Gilda, Rita Hayworth seduces the audience in the same way that Johnny is weakened by the power of her beauty—in this introduction and throughout the film. The unspoken relationship between Johnny and Gilda that is foreshadowed in this scene shows the charm and sexuality that Gilda radiates even in her very first appearance. There is no doubt in the audience’s mind that Gilda has all the makings of the classic femme fatale. Visibly uncomfortable, Johnny reminds his boss of his earlier comments about the dangers of mixing women and gambling. “My wife isn’t just a ‘woman’”, Mudson retorts in response to Johnny’s reminder, informing the audience that Mundson sees Gilda as not a risk; she is not disposable, like the rest of the women in the world. Gilda is the exception, and in this introduction, we can see why that it is. It is her beauty and her charm that have captivated Mundson (and Johnny) entirely.
Gilda’s singing noticeably pains Johnny. He wants to confront her, though he knows that he cannot, as his boss and Gilda’s new husband are one and the same. Yet Gilda’s hair flip and smile remind Johnny too of how beautiful and charismatic she is. Consumed by this mix of emotions, the hatred he feels towards her disappears, just for a moment. But a moment only lasts so long, and he has to snap back into faking that Gilda is a stranger, for the sake of his relationship with Mundson. However, the effects of this moment linger, and Gilda’s hold on Johnny is seen throughout the film.
The magical combination of Gilda’s hair flip and her knock-out smile as she responds, “Me?”, can be categorized as the moment the world shifts, the moment that changes the course of these characters’ lives and sets them on the journey of the film. Gilda spends the movie teasing Johnny by dancing and flirting with other men, and because of the early moment of Johnny’s vulnerability, we can relate and sympathize to Johnny’s struggles throughout the movie. This scene humanizes Johnny as the audience’s protagonist. As the femme fatale, Gilda continues to wrap many men around her finger, tugging the audience along too. She seduces us with flashes of that smile, with that constant dash of mystery surrounding her. What are her intentions with Mundson? Is it love? Is it money? Gilda’s mystery behind her intentions make her the classic femme fatale for this film noir.
Hayworth’s career direction changed after the release of Gilda. While the movie was still in theaters, her likeness appeared on an atomic bomb in what was thought to be a tribute to her bombshell status. But Hayworth allegedly became irate about this—she had to be restrained from going to Washington to express her frustration. Over the years since the release of Gilda, Hayworth struggled in her relationships as well as troubles with alcoholism. When the film came out in 1946, she was still married to Orson Welles. By 1961, she had married and divorced three other men. Welles described alcohol was a factor when Hayworth “would break all the furniture and she’d get in a car and (Welles) have to get in the car and try to control her. She’d drive up in the hills suicidal. Terrible, terrible nights.” Biographers believe that Hayworth’s alcohol abuse factored into her aging fast and ultimately ended her career.
Even if you have never seen Gilda, there is a strong chance that you have seen this clip of her introduction—seen in montages about the history of Classic Hollywood and its stars. The reason for this familiarity comes from Hayworth’s legacy of putting viewers of all generations under her spell. Her introduction as Gilda sets up her character perfectly. Throughout the rest of movie, we, the audience, accompany Johnny as he gets lost on her trail, getting jealous when she is dancing with someone besides our male protagonist. And when she performs her famous “Amado Mio,” we are enthralled with her every move, because she’s captured our attention from the first moment she flipped her hair back. It is the moment that forever has defined Hayworth’s whole career.
It is this magical moment that has made this movie legendary, in our world and even in other fictional ones. Separate from the world of film noir, Stephen King and Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption knows Gilda’s power, as Morgan Freeman’s Red comments, “here she comes. This is the part I really like, it’s when she does that shit with her hair.” Whether it be in your living room, here at the Brattle, or in Shawshank Prison, Gilda captivates and awes her audience from her introduction onward.