Directed by: Nicholas Ray.
Written by: Philip Yordan and Ben Maddow (uncredited) and Nicholas Ray (uncredited) based on the novel by Roy Chanslor.
Starring: Joan Crawford (Vienna), Sterling Hayden (Johnny 'Guitar' Logan), Mercedes McCambridge (Emma Small), Scott Brady (Dancin' Kid), Ward Bond (John McIvers), Ben Cooper (Turkey Ralston), Ernest Borgnine (Bart Lonergan), John Carradine (Old Tom), Royal Dano (Corey), Frank Ferguson (Marshal Williams).
Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar is one of his very best movies – a Western that ranks among the most wildly over the top films ever made, and yet, somehow, hits all the right notes. Read 10 different reviews of Johnny Guitar, and you’ll likely read 10 different interpretations of what it all means. One of the great things about Johnny Guitar is that it seems to support all these different views on what it all means – and is also deliriously entertaining to boot.
The movie may be called Johnny Guitar, but he is far from the protagonist of the movie. Sure, his arrival in town helps to set in motion the plot, and in some ways he will “save the day” in the end, but for most of the movie, Johnny takes a backseat in the proceedings. The real protagonist is Vienna (Joan Crawford), an ambitious businesswoman, who Johnny rejected five years earlier when he was a gunfighter, and didn’t want to settle done. In the intervening years, Vienna made a lot of money as a prostitute, and now owns a gambling den and saloon on the outskirts of a town who doesn’t want her there. She doesn’t care. She knows the railroad is coming, and with it, lots of people who will want her. The townsfolk are scared of this development, and are futilely fighting progress.
No one more so than Mercedes McCambridge’s Emma Small. Crawford, whose baby this was, wanted Claire Trevor to play the role, but the studio insisted on McCambridge. Apparently Crawford hated McCambridge, and the feelings were most likely mutual, and while that didn’t make for a comfortable set, it aids the movie greatly. Emma is one of the great screen villains of all time – a seething ball of pure hatred who cannot take her eyes off of Vienna. She is apparently in love with The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), another outsider to the townspeople, who are convinced that he and his gang held up the stagecoach and killed Emma’s brother. The movie starts with them all coming to Vienna’s saloon to arrest the Kid and his gang – but Vienna stands up for them. Nonetheless, town elder John McIvers (Ward Bond), gives the Kid and his gang 24 hours to clear town – and Vienna 24 hours to close up shop. He has no real authority to do this, but who’s going to stop him? Besides, it’s Emma who is calling the shots – she runs the bank and with her brother dead, is now the richest, most powerful person in town. What Emma wants, Emma gets.
The surface of Johnny Guitar is wonderfully colorful and over the top. Critics in 1954 were distracted by the melodrama on the surface of Johnny Guitar – they complained about the goofy plot (it is), overwrought score (which it is, unless you’re attuned to Ray’s wavelength) and the undeniable camp of the movie. They dismissed the movie, but right from the start the French loved it – both Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut were big fans, and they saw everything going on beneath the over the top surface of the film.
For one thing, it appears clear now that Johnny Guitar was a commentary on McCarthyism. While the screenplay is credited to Philip Yordan, we know now that the real writer was Ben Maddow, then blacklisted. How more people didn’t see this at the time is a commentary about how shallowly many people watch movies – because it is impossible to watch the scene where the townsfolk brutally question Turkey, one of the Kid’s gang, telling him “just tell us Vienna was one of you and we won’t hang you”, only to, of course, hang him after he does precisely what they say.
But that’s just one level of Johnny Guitar. The film has also been called a “Freudian” Western, for the way it deals with sexuality, and questions everyone’s sexual motivations throughout. Nearly every character is drawn sexually to Vienna. The Dancin’ Kid is in love with her, but she simply uses him for sex – and even that stops when Johnny rolls into town, looking to make up for lost time. Johnny loves her as well, and in perhaps the film’s best scene, they talk long into the night, and he gets her to “lie to me”, in a conversation dripping with cynicism between these two. And Emma, of course, is in many ways in love with Vienna herself – which is precisely why she hates her so much. McCambridge’s performance is wildly, madly over the top, and yet it is perfect for the movie – one of the greatest portraits of self-loathing ever put on screen.
Johnny Guitar plays with Western clichés from the outset – from gender reversals (Truffaut said the film was like Beauty and the Beast – with Sterling Hayden as the beauty), and as one character says of Crawford – “I’ve never met a woman who was more man” – and later Vienna will say of Emma, when she is questioned why she wants to hang The Kid if she loves him – “He makes her feel like a woman – she hates that”. The men in the movie are weak, easily bent and played by the two women – and eventually the men realize that the smartest thing to do is just stay out of their way.
Nicholas Ray had a long, distinguished career as a filmmaker – although he is undeniably more highly thought of now than he was when he was working (he only got one Oscar nomination in his career – for writing Rebel without a Cause). Johnny Guitar is as good as anything he has ever made – films like In a Lonely Place (1950) or Bigger Than Life (1956), which like Johnny Guitar are more interesting the deeper you delve into them. At long last, Johnny Guitar was finally given a proper DVD and Blu-Ray release, and it’s now available for all to savor. It is a true masterwork.