“By the way…” Gilda, and a Neat Bit of Exposition

Gilda movie poster

Mild spoilers for Gilda.

I just saw a neat bit of narrative exposition, and I wanted to mention it.

I was watching Gilda, a noir film set in a fancy underground casino in Buenos Aires in the 40s. I was just starting to wonder when exactly in the 40s it took place — when the main character/narrator, Johnny, says, quickly and offhandedly, “By the way, about that time, the war ended.” And there’s a quick shot of a newspaper headline saying, “GERMANY SURRENDERS,” before the story moves on.

“By the way, about that time, the war ended.”

I love it.

It doesn’t just establish the time. It establishes Johnny’s relationship to the time, and to the world. We don’t simply get the cliche of the spinning newspaper headline. We get “By the way,” and, “About that time.” Which tells us something about Johnny. (Or possibly the culture of rich people in Argentina gambling in fancy illegal casinos. Or both.) It tells us that World War II was only of incidental interest, and his attention was on other things. It tells of deep detachment and self-involvement.

And it tells of a certain cynical pleasure in that detached self-involvement. Of course Johnny knows that, for most people, the end of World War II wouldn’t have happened “by the way.” The moment they learned of it would be burned in their brain — not something that happened “around that time.” Even now in 2023, 78 years after the war ended and 77 years after the movie came out, I hear this bit of narration, and I’m startled and pissed off.

It’s even more noteworthy because, a bit later, he recounts the first time he saw Gilda in Buenos Aires — and makes a point of telling us he remembers the exact day it happened. The contrast is jarring. Johnny knows that most people are pretty damned invested in World War II. He knows his offhanded attitude will be deeply off-putting to anyone listening. And he doesn’t care. This tiny bit of dialog demonstrates his detachment, not only from the world around him, but from us.

All in nine words.

The movie overall is a bit uneven: strong start, iffy finish, with both strong and iffy bits in between. But this? Chef’s kiss. Nicely done.

“By the way…” Gilda, and a Neat Bit of Exposition