Andy: I understand you're a man that knows how to get things.
Red: Yeah, I'm known to locate certain things from time to time. What do you want?
Andy: Rita Hayworth.
By the time Andy Dufresne, a quiet young banker wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of his wife and her lover, asks to have Rita Hayworth smuggled into Shawshank Prison, he's served two years of two life sentences. It's a significant moment that will ultimately lead to his salvation; not for nothing is the novella on which Frank Darabont's film is based named "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption." Part of what makes The Shawshank Redemption such a great and popular movie is that it shows us how our passions and hobbies – whether they're books or pin-up queens or chess or other interests – can liberate us from our present circumstances. In the case of Andy Dufresne, they provide a literal means of escape.
Andy (Tim Robbins) asks for Rita Hayworth during a picture show. In Stephen King's novella, the movie that's playing is The Lost Weekend with Ray Milland and Jane Wyman. Instead of The Lost Weekend, Darabont uses the 1946 film noir Gilda, which provided Hayworth with her most iconic role. The change is good for several reasons, the most obvious of which being that we immediately get to see the amazing beautiful woman Andy is talking about. There are also some nice parallels between the movie that Red (Morgan Freeman) and Andy are watching (Gilda) and the movie that we're watching (The Shawshank Redemption), which I'll get to shortly.
I'm not all that impressed with Gilda as a piece of film noir. It lacks the complexity of The Big Sleep, and Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity is miles beyond it. In Wilder's classic, we understood why Barbara Stanwyck held Fred MacMurray spellbound. Hayworth's femme fatale and the movie she's in don't have that kind of pull. I had more fun imagining Andy Dufresne watching Gilda (he claims to have seen it three times during the month he asks Red for the pin-up poster) than I did actually watching it myself.
One thing that occurred to me while watching Gilda is how the characters and setting would have appealed to Andy. Gilda and the two men she's involved with are all Americans hiding out in Buenos Aires. Seventeen years after the picture show, Andy will also be an expatriate living in a Latin American country, hoping to forget his past in "a warm place with no memory." Another parallel: in Gilda, the cartel that allows the Americans to live so lavishly abroad is run by German businessmen who cover up their shady dealings by using Gilda's husband (George Macready) as a front. Years later, Andy will have a similar scheme going when he conjures Randall Stevens ("second cousin to Harvey the Rabbit") out of thin air, so as to render the schemes of Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) untraceable.
The characters in Gilda are so irredeemable and Hayworth is so sexy that I'm surprised corrupt, pious Warden Norton would allow his inmates to watch it. Indeed, Hayworth is shockingly uninhibited in the role. Early on she states bluntly, "If I'da been a ranch, they would have named me the bar none." Later, in a vaguely S&M scene, she brings a whip to a costume party. You can imagine what kind of effect this screen goddess (described by King in the novella as "Woman in Heat") would have had on a mostly heterosexual audience of inmates locked up for decades. It's easy to understand why Red shushes Andy so he can watch Hayworth do "that shit with her hair."
More than just a chance to ogle at an unattainable object of affection, what Rita Hayworth provides the men of Shawshank is an opportunity to forget about the mess they've gotten themselves into. This is a thread that runs throughout the movie. When Andy plays Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" over the prison's loudspeakers, Freeman sums up the opera's transformative power in one of his most unforgettable voiceovers:
I have no idea what those two Italian ladies were singing about... I'd like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can't be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you those voices soared, higher than anybody in a grey place dares to dream. It was like a beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank felt free.
A slow pan of Andy's prison cell in the mid 1960s reveals the ways in which he's pursued his interests on the inside – as a chess player, rock hound, bookworm and admirer of the female form. These have helped him keep going for 19 years, and they illustrate the movie's central theme: that no matter what you have to hold onto a sense of hope. Of course, by now, Rita has been replaced by Marilyn, who has in turn been replaced by Raquel. The secret Raquel spills when Warden Norton throws a chess piece at her is about the best metaphor I can think of for how our passions can set us free.