Johnny Guitar (1954)
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Produced by Nicholas Ray
Screenplay by Philip Yordan (Ben Maddow and Nicholas Ray, uncredited)
Based on the novel by Roy Chanslor
Cinematography by Harry Stradling
Edited by Richard L. Van Enger
Music by Victor Young
Costumes by Sheila O’Brien
Olive Films Blu-ray (1:50)
Nobody really knew what to make of Johnny Guitar when it was released in 1954. Martin Scorsese says as much in his introduction on the Olive Films Blu-ray edition of the film. Audiences “didn’t know what to make of it, so they either ignored it or laughed at it.”
Johnny Guitar arrived on the scene at a time when Westerns were on the decline (at least at the movies; television westerns were another story.) Two years earlier in 1952, there were 80 American Western movies produced. In 1953, that number slipped to 72, and by 1954 it was down to only 52. Anyone walking into Johnny Guitar expecting a John Wayne type of movie was in for a big shock, maybe even a coronary.
Roger Ebert called the film “one of the most blatant psychosexual melodramas ever to disguise itself in that most commodious of genres, the Western.” You could oversimplify Johnny Guitar as a “role-reversal” Western with the women taking charge and the men subservient to them, but there’s much more complexity going on here.
Joan Crawford (above) plays Vienna, the owner of a saloon/gambling house, its location advantageously close to the site of a soon-to-be-completed railroad. The local cattlemen don’t want the railroad and don’t like the fact that Vienna supports it, but they frequent her saloon anyway. The locals put their support instead behind Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge, below center), who loathes Vienna largely because the man Emma loves, “The Dancin’ Kid” (Scott Brady), is in love with Vienna. Emma and the townsfolk backing her up suspect “The Dancin’ Kid” of robbing a stagecoach and are convinced Vienna is hiding him. It doesn’t take long before we realize that this is just a pretext for trying to shut down Vienna’s place and run her out of town. All of this happens as a mysterious man named Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden, second photo below) arrives to the saloon. He seems to have some connection to Vienna, but we don’t initially know what it is.
One thing you can say about Johnny Guitar is that it’s never boring. So many conventions are turned on their heads you can’t help but get pulled into the film’s strangeness. The sexual energy between Vienna and Emma is intense and immediate. (Emma can’t take her eyes off Vienna, even when she wants to kill her.) The men, although they can mix it up with each other without much provocation, are generally passive, except when they’re on the verge of a catfight (which is quite often and enormously entertaining).
Nothing about the film feels authentic and maybe that’s part of the point. We see very little of the townspeople and nothing else of the town other than the saloon. The title character plays his guitar once (maybe twice?), with Sterling Hayden providing possibly the worst on-screen job of guitar playing you’ve ever seen. Joan Crawford goes from brightly colored shirt/pants/bandana combinations to an elegant white gown to perform a piano solo in the saloon. 1954 audiences knew they weren’t watching a normal Western, but they probably didn’t know exactly what they were watching, either. Critic Dennis Schwartz once remarked, ”Francois Truffaut said it reminded him of ‘The Beauty and the Beast,’ with Sterling Hayden being the beauty.” That should tell you something…
Johnny Guitar was shot in Trucolor, a color process exclusive to Republic Pictures releases. While some colors look a bit faded in places (and not as impressive as Technicolor), overall the look of the film is quite impressive.
Although most American critics gave the film negative reviews, European audiences (particularly in France) lauded it. In 2012, Japanese director Shinji Aoyama called Johnny Guitar one of the greatest films of all time, saying that it’s a film “I’d like to remake someday, although I know that it’s impossible. It’s probably closest to the worst nightmare I can have.” Roger Ebert even placed the film in his Great Movies series. That may be a bit of a stretch for some, but then again, perhaps not.
I know that I’ve said practically nothing about Nicholas Ray, but I do have plans to discuss him at length later this year, probably nearer to the Criterion release of In a Lonely Place.
People have commented that Johnny Guitar is simply an allegory on McCarthyism, feminism, bisexuality, gay/lesbian love, and more. With or without those subtexts, the film is above all else, a spectacle, high opera, a passionate parade of actors and elements of a genre we’ve seen before in a way we’ve never seen them before. If you love classic films, you must see it.