Originally Published September 23rd 2017
The 1950s is easily the decade where the Western thrived. Captured in expansive CinemaScope, the Wild West never looked wilder. But with so many cowpokes roaming the range it was only a matter of time before the range turned in on itself. The year before he took teen rebellion to the mainstream with Rebel Without a Cause, director Nicholas Ray looked at the Western with the existential Johnny Guitar. Gorgeously released to 4K Blu-ray courtesy of Olive Films, Johnny Guitar takes the Western down some unique roads regarding gender, romance and how the West was truly won.
Johnny “Guitar” Logan (Sterling Hayden) wanders into a saloon run by Vienna (Joan Crawford), a tough-talking entrepreneur who mixes company with the Dancing Kid (Scott Brady) and his outlaw gang. When Vienna and the Kid are given 24 hours to leave town, Vienna refuses, angering her greatest opponent, Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge).
Generally described as the Western where Joan Crawford wears pants, Johnny Guitar is a dark, near cynical exploration of the inner depths of depravity and desire that plagues the human soul. Vienna enjoys hearing the spin the roulette wheel, a reminder of how fortune’s wheel turns for all of us, advising luck ill or good. In this case, Vienna tells her man when to start and stop the wheel, taking control over her own destiny for a short time. Rocking a red scarf that reminds audiences of Jim Stark’s red leather jacket in Rebel – the two characters could be kissin’ cousins – her drive for respect places her as an outcast.
Much is made regarding the gender-swap between characters with Crawford herself, who had purchased the rights to Roy Chanslor’s novel, demanding a Paul Newman-type of role. Her men have “never seen a woman who more a man” and Crawford makes Vienna a woman comfortable being herself in her saloon, but desperate to remind the man she loves, the eponymous Johnny Guitar, that, no matter what, she is a woman. As the film progresses Vienna starts wearing more feminine clothing, culminating in a white wedding-type of dress. It’s only after everything she’s worked for is destroyed that she embraces her masculine qualities – i.e. the ability to stick up for herself and fight.
Crawford’s tendency to exaggerate her facial expressions leaves her in a permanent state of frowny face, but all of this is negligible with Ray’s direction and Philip Yordan’s script (which Crawford had a prominent hand in). Vienna’s sense of duty and Emma’s lynch mob touch on that magical time in the 1950s known as the House Un-American Activities Committee. (Is there any film from the decade not influenced by HUAC?) Vienna’s nonconformist attitude and refusal to reveal the Dancing Kid’s whereabouts leaves her a target for the already jealous Emma. When young buck Turkey (Ben Cooper) gets the chance to save himself if he implicates Vienna, a modern-day (for 1954) Salem is established. Words become as ineffective as guns, though both have the same power to maim and kill. As Vienna beautifully sums it up, “Boys who play with guns have to be ready to die like men,” and those on the right side of the law have to question the consequences.
With Crawford’s Vienna taking charge in the John Wayne role, the men become either Vienna’s subordinates or the equivalent of the mild-mannered good girl waiting for the cowboy to hang up his hat; the girl in this case is Sterling Hayden. Hayden, better known for his hard-boiled noirs and other tough guy roles, grovels for Vienna’s attention. He begs her to lie to him and proclaim that she pined for him. It’d pathetic if it wasn’t a refreshing role-reversal. Vienna finds Johnny’s wish for her to settle down beneath her though “he couldn’t see himself tied down to a home.” She also resent Johnny’s judgement of her for her lifestyle choices, shaming him for seeing one slip for her as proof of her lowly status, whereas a man’s infidelities are a source of pride, that old double standard.
None of this is nearly as gripping as Vienna’s animosity with Emma Smalls. Mirroring their on-screen counterparts, Crawford and McCambridge’s animosity bled off-screen, with Crawford despising the younger actress so much she slashed McCambridge’s wardrobe. Though the response isn’t warranted Crawford’s fear is well-founded because McCambridge runs away with the entire production. Despite the Dancing Kid killing her brother and the gang robbing the town bank, your sympathies don’t lie with her rightful indignation.
The reason for this is three-fold: One, Emma ends up going way too far with her revenge to the point of demanding false evidence against Vienna where there isn’t any. She isn’t interested in justice, but proving her point. Two, the movie alludes to a possible jealousy over the Dancing Kid and Johnny’s romance with Vienna, implying that Emma is truly in love with Vienna herself. Most importantly, Emma’s righteousness is what makes her so dangerous. Not only does she believe she’s preemptively stopping the gang and Vienna from doing bad things without proof, but she also fears the approach of the railroad will bring in squatters and other riffraff to drive wealthy fat cats like her out of the town. (Johnny Guitar is a VERY timely movie.) McCambridge stokes her hate fire so well it becomes mythic. Emma watches the flames consume Vienna’s saloon with all the fervor of a witch standing in front of her cauldron, unleashing the beasts of hell.
The 4K restoration is utterly breathtaking with some of the clearest and brightest picture I’ve seen in a color feature. Director Martin Scorsese provides an introduction and overview of the film’s power, while audio commentary, featurettes and a Criterion-style booklet accompany the disc.
Johnny Guitar is a Western that comes once in a lifetime and it’s power remains as prescient today as it did in 1954. Give me Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge duking out on the frontier and I’m happy as can be!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.