Like the previous entry on Pan’s Labyrinth, Gilda is another film that is all about sight. But that’s about where the similarities end. More specifically, Gilda contains heavy traces of voyeurism. From all that I can tell, the film was even marketed as such; a sort of “Come and watch Rita Hayworth shake those famous hips,” etc. Ballin’s office, all throughout, is a viewpoint for the whole club, with its constantly opening and closing blinds, a 180-degree view, and even a high-tech audio system transmitting the sounds of the club to the office. Obviously Gilda herself is the object of focus not only for most of the films other characters (almost no other female is shown on camera – as if they could have competed), but the camera itself can’t seem to keep from pointing straight at her. The viewer’s hunch is eventually confirmed that her previous occupation had her fishing for ones from an all-man crowd. One scene has her falling back into her old habit of stripping while singing and dancing, as men lose whatever trace they still had of self-control. (They’re all too willing to assist with her stubborn zipper.) Gilda enjoys being watched. Whether she is dancing solo or with a partner, coming home late with new men, sashaying down a hall, or grooming herself, she wants nothing more than to be swooned over. Her first appearance in the film has her swooping into the screen, hair-first, almost as if posing for the very real photo shoot she is in.
Bannin, on the other hand, enjoys watching – almost enjoys watching Johnny more than Gilda. Bannin’s sight signifies his upper hand, or his power. After commissioning Johnny with the task of watching Gilda for him, Bannin reminds Johnny, “I’ll be watching.” Johnny seems only slightly aware of the disturbing fact that Bannin is more excited by watching another man watch his wife than he is by watching his wife himself. Once Bannin sees Johnny in a compromising position with Gilda, he flees in a setup-scene designed to deceive Johnny’s vision. Once Bannin is believed to be dead, the camera shows us Johnny and Gilda in the courthouse marrying. The camera view is from the outside of an upper window of the building, recalling the upstairs view of the casino from Bannin’s office window. The view implies to the viewer that Bannin is quite alive, and watching.
As mentioned, power is another major theme. From the film’s earliest scenes, one of the main characters is Bannin’s walking stick, which doubles as a protruding blade at Bannin’s pressing of a button. That the stick/blade is phallic goes without saying: it wields Bannin’s power, it extends, and its blade signifies castration of the other. Bannin calls it his “friend,” and proclaims, “It speaks when I wish it to speak, it is silent when I wish it to be silent.” Johnny quickly identifies himself with the stick/blade: “You have no idea how faithful and obedient I can be.” Johnny takes advantage of Bannin’s infatuation with him by lining himself up with Bannin’s instrument of male dominance. At one point while Johnny and Bannin are discussing the “friend” in Gilda’s presence, Gilda unwittingly asks whether the friend is a he or a she. When Bannin asks Johnny to answer the question, Johnny says it’s a she, “because it looks like one thing, then right before your eyes, it becomes another.” The shifting gender of the cane correlates with Bannin’s sexual orientation, if we can say so, shifting between Johnny and Gilda, as Johnny and Gilda battle each other’s love and hate for the other.
The theme of power develops as the film moves on and becomes something like sado-masochism. After seeing Gilda for the first time, Johnny narrates, “I wanted to go back up and hit her…and him, too.” Earlier, Johnny’s flexed his power simply by calling “cut” during the dealer’s shuffle at the blackjack table. His desire to annoy became a desire to inflict actual pain. When Bannin questions Johnny regarding his feelings for Gilda, Johnny tells him not to worry, since he hates Gilda. Bannin points out that that is what worries him: “Hate is a very exciting emotion.” Gilda later confesses to Johnny, “I hate you so much, I think I’m going to die from it.” Gilda even masochistically prophesies her own demise, declaring in a toast, “Death to the wench,” knowing that “the wench” referred to her as the woman who had injured and embittered Johnny.
The film features a token Shakespearean fool, a little man who shines shoes and dries hands in the washroom. The film’s only source of pure wisdom, he provides a worm’s-eye view of Johnny, Gilda, and Bannin from the beginning. He points out his very lack of status (i.e. lack of power) actually renders him impervious to any of Johnny’s attempts to get rid of him. He observes that Bannin lets Gilda out of his sights, leaving her exposed and vulnerable to Johnny’s advances (though she doesn’t seem to mind). In the same way, at the film’s end, Bannin foolishly abandons his cane, substituting for it a much smaller instrument of power – a gun – only to have the wise fool take a hold of the cane, extend the blade, and overcome Bannin from the back. Interestingly, Bannin’s final words, interrupted by the blade, are, “I told you I’d be looking–” Up to the end, Bannin’s faith is in his sight. The ironic ending has him stabbed in his back, too late for him to learn that he can’t look everywhere at once.