Nicholas Ray, 1954
Starring: Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge
A headstrong woman named Vienna runs her own saloon, but is at odds with many of the residents of the desert town nearby, because she supports the building of a railroad. She is friendly with a band of relatively harmless gunfighters and its leader, The Dancin’ Kid, is in love with her. Unfortunately, the gang comes under fire when a local is killed and his sister, Emma, demands justice. She wants Vienna and The Dancin’ Kid killed – or at least run out of town – though jealousy seems to figure into her motivations. Vienna hires an old lover, Johnny Guitar, to protect her, but she can’t prevent the town from descending into chaos.
Joan Crawford stars in this strange blend of Western, film noir, romantic melodrama, and epic tragedy. Truffaut called it “hallucinatory” and it certainly has a unique quality that’s made it both a cult favorite and beloved by other filmmakers. For one thing, the film’s two most important roles are for female characters – Joan Crawford’s Vienna and Mercedes McCambridge’s (The Exorcist) Emma – but not your typical 1950s female characters. The two male leads – Sterling Hayden as Johnny Guitar and Scott Brady as The Dancin’ Kid (those names, come on) – do relatively little other than pine over Vienna and respond to her every whim, while the women own businesses, shoot guns, and effectively run the town. Emma whips herself up in a froth of jealousy, where she is determined to kill The Dancin’ Kid (Vienna says this is because the Kid makes her feel like a woman) and Vienna for providing such stiff competition. Both Emma and Vienna are business owners – cattle and gambling respectively – and they represent the two sides of desert life: cowboys and bandits.
The film’s complicated sexual politics, which culminates in a lethal shootout, suggests a touch of lesbianism in the rivalry between Emma and Vienna, namely in Emma’s violent, unhealthy obsession with Vienna. In real life, Crawford and McCambridge hated each other (due to rivalry) and Crawford allegedly got drunk and threw McCambridge’s clothes and costumes out into the street. Their hatred for each other translated beautifully to the screen and director Nicholas Ray was allegedly delighted that they didn’t get along. And I challenge you to find another film from the period that not only ends in a woman rescuing herself, but in a woman involved in a firefight to the death with another female character.
Despite the film’s low budget and limited sets, Crawford herself serves as a main set piece, as she is costumed in bold colors – namely red, white, and black – and is always artfully posed. In one of my favorite scenes, when her saloon is invaded by angry ranchers, she doesn’t confront them with guns blazing, but rather dolls herself up in a flouncy white dress and plays the piano throughout their confrontation. But I can’t say that this all rests on Crawford. Though she is far superior to McCambridge, Hayden, and Brady, keep your eyes out from some supporting performances from Ward Bond (The Searchers, The Maltese Falcon), Ben Cooper (The Rose Tattoo), John Carradine (Stagecoach), and a young Ernest Borgnine!
Johnny Guitar might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it comes highly recommended. The blacklisted Ben Maddow helped write the script (in secret) and this is a barely veiled look at the evils of mob violence and McCarthyism. It magically wavers between operatic levels of tragedy, violence, and unrequited love, and absolute camp that must be seen to be believed. After years of being unavailable, it’s finally out on Blu-ray. If you love Joan Crawford and Nicholas Ray, as I do, you won’t want to sleep on this one. Also give Peggy Lee’s catchy, mournful title song a listen.