JOHNNY GUITAR (1954)
In the Old West, a female saloon owner’s former lover must return to gunslinging to defend her from a lynch mob.
A daring exercise in subversive camp, or a dull movie that works neither as a conventional western nor as a psychological drama? Take your pick. Johnny Guitar was divisive back in the mid-1950s, and while it’s certainly achieved a kind of curiosity-classic status nowadays, there will still be many who agree with US critics of the time. “Let’s put it down as a fiasco,” wrote Bosley Crowther in The New York Times, considering it “a flat walk-through—or occasional ride-through—of western cliches” with “a great deal of talk and a little shooting.” And he had a point. On the other hand, the French New Wave critics loved it (as they often did the work of its director Nicholas Ray). So did Sergio Leone, drawing on the film for his Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) with its landowning lady and a musical gunman.
Johnny Guitar is unlikely to leave you lacking an opinion, departing as it does so far from the norms of the western it initially looks like, with its hyper-unrealistic repartee, its lengthy spells of immobility, and its flashes of cinematic brilliance alternating with stretches of self-indulgent tedium. To audiences of the ’50s, of course, equally remarkable was its casting of two women (Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge) in central roles that would normally have gone to men; for while Sterling Hayden’s Johnny Guitar is supposedly the protagonist, he’s an almost irrelevant character to the point it’s possible to imagine the story functioning without him.
The place is Arizona circa 1880. Vienna (Crawford) owns a bar which she’s presciently built at a place the railroad will soon pass—but the locals, led by Emma (McCambridge), want her out. They claim to suspect her of being involved with the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) and his criminal gang, but their real beef with Vienna is her support for the railroad. They’re ranchers and, as Emma says, they don’t want the “dirt farmers… squatters” from the east that the trains will bring, as the cattlemen will find their families “squeezed between barbed wire and fence posts.”
On the surface, Johnny Guitar seems like it might play out the familiar ranchers-vs-farmers storyline, but the film has barely any time for this. It puts the personal rivalry between Vienna and Emma to the fore (aided by their offscreen disagreements; the rage and hatred in Emma/McCambridge’s face may not just be acting) and positions both the Dancin’ Kid’s crew and Johnny Guitar himself essentially as Vienna’s people. A nominal love interest is added with a rekindling of romance between Johnny and Vienna—they’d been an item five years earlier when he was gunfighter Johnny Logan, but he’s since put away his six-shooters in favour of a guitar and apparently mislaid his personality in the process. (It’s easy to wonder if the character is just an excuse for the Peggy Lee song Johnny Guitar.)
Subtlety isn’t the movie’s strong suit. In case we hadn’t noticed the leads are women, Crawford is overtly compared to a man (“she thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel I’m not”, comments a croupier in her saloon), and the two most significant men are given nicknames associated with dance and music rather than the more aggressive masculine pursuits of genre tradition. This heavy-handed touch is reflected in much of the production style as well, with its feverish high-contrast Trucolor (critic David Thomson thought it induced a “feeling that lipstick is made of blood”), and its over-extended scenes of melodrama.
However, there are more sensitively judged touches too. In an early stand-off scene at Vienna’s bar, director Ray’s attention to detail is masterful; every single character movement matters. Later, there’s a fantastic shot of a brass gas chandelier seen from above, with Crawford below in a billowing, diaphanous white dress. When she eventually shoots at the chandelier to start a fire, we see her shadow cast by the flames’ light.
This presentation of Crawford as a sensuous figure is perhaps at odds with her own distant, icily commanding performance, but it’s effective nonetheless, and her broader significance as a representative of culture and progress on the wild frontier is also nicely caught in a scene, again in the saloon, where she sits playing the piano against a wall of solid Sedona red rock. (The saloon interior set is lavish, though perhaps overused, giving the first part of the film a rather stagey feel; exteriors are welcome after that, even if the difference between those shot at Republic Studios using back projection and superimposition and those actually filmed on location is rather obvious.)
The movie may also have had extra significance to contemporary audiences, with its clear comparison of Emma and her black-clad posse to Senator Joseph McCarthy and his anti-Communist witch hunts. McCarthy’s influence was fading by the time Johnny Guitar was released (his reign of terror was more short-lived than often realised), but still at its height when the film was conceived in 1953. Crawford had bought the rights to Roy Chanslor’s novel the year before it was published, and played a major part in getting it produced, including the choice of Ray as director (but not the loathed McCambridge).
As Johnny says, in an apparent commentary on McCarthyism, “a posse isn’t people—I’ve ridden with ’em, and I’ve ridden against ’em—a posse is an animal that moves like one and thinks like one”, though it’s interesting that when it comes to the crunch, its individual members are much less inclined to violence than their leader Emma. A comment on the way the Senator influenced the more moderate?
It may be appropriate, then, that McCambridge is by far the stand-out of the cast, her Emma exuding a real menace. In contrast, Crawford is so detached and seems so pleased with herself (perhaps a result of managing to bring her pet project to the screen?) that it’s difficult to feel her Vienna is truly interacting with the other characters, or indeed fully present in the story. Hayden, the titular Johnny, is bland and lacking in charisma, quite possibly cast thus to avoid upstaging Crawford; while Brady’s Dancin’ Kid is overdone, although two members of his gang (a pugnacious Ernest Borgnine and a quietly assertive Royal Dano) are more convincing. John Carradine unsurprisingly makes the most of a small role as a bartender at Vienna’s establishment.
Johnny Guitar picks up excitement after a slow start, especially in the posse’s long pursuit of the Dancin’ Kid, and in a lynching scene and the tense encounter at Vienna’s bar that precedes it—but it also has the most boring bank robbery ever committed to film. It seems more concerned with the interplay of characters than with standard western adventure—but it also does little to develop those characters. It seemingly puts Crawford/Vienna at its centre—but also makes her a largely passive recipient of McCambridge/Emma’s malice, rather than a force in herself. It expounds on the coming cattlemen/farmer conflict, but clearly doesn’t actually care about that at all.
It’s a film of contradictions, not always successful ones, and for many it doesn’t work as a whole. But it’s undoubtedly fascinating, with all its strangenesses and its peculiar combination of hysteria and flatness, and Eureka Entertainment (here reissuing Ray’s movie for its ‘Masters of Cinema’ imprint). has put together a terrific package of extras that add real depth.
USA | 1954 | 110 MINUTES | 1.66:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Nicholas Ray.
writer: Philip Yordan (based on the novel by Roy Chanslor).
starring: Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, Scott Brady, Ward Bond, Ben Cooper & Ernest Borgnine.