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There are Westerns and there are unique Westerns … and then there's Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar. It is impossible to understate just how strange, weird and just downright odd this film is. Johnny Guitar was not immediately recognized as a major film when it was first released in the U.S. in 1954, but Europeans loved it and it became a major influence on the French New Wave directors. Today, it has a cult audience, thanks to its incredibly campy nature and innumerable ways of interpreting it.
The story of Johnny Guitar, based on Roy Chanslor's novel and written by Philip Yordan, centers on Vienna (Joan Crawford), who owns a saloon in an Arizona town and has ambitions to bring the train through the town. However, the cattlemen, led by the fiery, sexually-repressed Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), are opposed, fearing the type of people that might be drawn to the town. They also hate Vienna's guts, especially because of her relationship with an outlaw named the Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady) and his gang (which includes Ernest Borngine). The catalyst that starts the film is the hold-up of a stagecoach and the killing of Emma's brother. Emma and the townspeople are convinced it was the Dancin' Kid and that Vienna is providing them with a place to stay, even though there's no evidence to support that.
That's where Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) comes in. Johnny strolls in as he's been hired to play the guitar. It later turns out that he and Vienna were lovers and that he's really Johnny Logan, a quick-draw gunman. All hell breaks loose in the town when the Dancin' Kid decides to rob the bank and Emma and the townspeople are convinced that Vienna was in on it. So, they mount an attack, forcing Vienna, Johnny, the Dancin' Kid and his gang to fight for their lives.
Johnny Guitar is bizarre in more ways than one. First off, unlike a typical Western, it's the women who lead the film, pushing its plot and are at the center of the final duel. The boiling hatred that Vienna and Emma have for each other feels so intense, mostly thanks to the fact that Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge hated each other in real life. McCambridge's acting in this film is seriously over-the-top, with her teeth clenched every time she's on screen. It can seem a little much, but when you realize that the entire film is over-the-top, then it works.
Their conflict makes all the men in this film seem weak and when you have Sterling Hayden playing the lead character, that's not too hard. As Hayden showed in The Asphalt Jungle and later in The Killing, his skills were being laid-back characters who nonchalantly went about their business. In this film, Hayden is a man who just wants to pass through town without causing trouble, but of course gets wrapped up in it. He gets some of the finest lines in the film, including “There's only two things in this world that a 'real man' needs: a cup of coffee and a good smoke.” (That line particularly tells us what Ray and the writers thought about masculinity.)
The plot can be seen as a parable for the McCarthy era, with a group of lawmen led by a single person who has zero regard for the truth. It's also about women rising up and taking advantage of complacent men. You have a couple running from their past, only in an attempt to rekindle an old relationship somewhere else. The innumerable ways to interpret Johnny Guitar is easily one of the biggest reasons why the film is held in such high regard, despite its unorthodoxy at every turn.
Olive Films released the film on DVD and Blu-ray last month through its licensing deal with Paramount (which owns the Republic library), marking the film's first official DVD release in the U.S. Despite its lack of bonus features (there's just a three-minute intro by Martin Scorsese and zero subtitles), the Blu-ray presents an amazingly pristine copy of the film. It certainly looks better than the last time I watched it on TCM and is an essential for fans of the film and Nicholas Ray.
Today, Ray is better known for the classic Rebel Without A Cause (which also features its lead character in a red shirt and blue pants at one point), but ignoring his other work is a disservice to his impact on film. From his unique film noirs (In A Lonely Place and On Dangerous Ground in particular) to Bigger Than Life, Ray proved to be a true auteur. Johnny Guitar is one of his films that deserves the praise heaped on it. It sure is bizarre, but that's part of the appeal. If you don't get it, watch another John Wayne movie.