Olive Films // 1954 // 110 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // October 1st, 2012
"Never seen a woman who was more a man...she thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I'm not one."
Vienna (Joan Crawford, Trog) owns a roadhouse in a place that has no road. But the tough-talking, gun-toting saloon keep knows better days are coming: the railroad's being built nearby, and Vienna's place is going to be a depot.
Not everyone is thrilled with Vienna's good fortune; in fact, some of the townspeople would like to run her out on that same rail that's going to make her wealthy. Chief among them: Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge, All the King's Men), whose hatred for Vienna runs so deep, it's almost pathological.
Into the roadhouse comes Johnny (Sterling Hayden, The Long Goodbye). Ask him "Johnny What?" and he'll tell you it's Johnny Guitar.
Johnny and Vienna had had a thing a few years before, but she left him just before they were to be married. Since striking out on her own, she's had "things" with a few other men, notably local goodtime guy and occasional bandit the Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady, The China Syndrome), who rides with a ragtag band of low-level outlaws.
When a stagecoach is robbed and Emma's brother killed, Emma and the townsmen storm Vienna's place, convinced that the Dancin' Kid and his gang were responsible -- and that Vienna's "one of 'em." It doesn't help that Emma's got a thing for the Kid -- who's got a thing for Vienna -- who's got a thing for Johnny -- who's got a thing for Vienna...
High camp melodramatic neuroses reign on the trail in Nicholas Ray's beautifully perverse and compelling Johnny Guitar, a definitive argument for the enduring elasticity of the western genre.
A hyper-sexualized fever fantasy in bold "Trucolor," Johnny Guitar is an audaciously weird and watchable film. Ray takes all the notions of a conventional western and turns them inside out, presenting what could have been a simple story and tarting it up with outlandishly stylized and eternally quotable dialogue, steep helpings of subtext, and imagery as stunning as it occasionally ludicrous.
Ray's story deals in passion -- both as a life force and as a destructive power. Vienna is passionate: she built her saloon out of nothing, and thanks to a tip from a railway man some time before -- with whom she "shared confidences" -- she knows she's sitting on a goldmine. She also knows she might have dug her own grave. That Vienna is a woman who runs a business like a man is troubling to the locals; that she apparently has a healthy appetite for sex is enough for some to label her in very unrefined terms and view her as downright evil.
Emma is passionate, but her passion is a consummation of scorn and frustration. She despises Vienna with a vehemence that seems to devour her. With the help of the town's most powerful man (Ward Bond, The Searchers), Emma is dedicated not just to seeing Vienna fail or pack up and leave, but to destroying her -- along with the Kid, who ignites a feeling in Emma that the never-married woman obviously finds disgusting.
While the film is called Johnny Guitar, neither Hayden nor any of the male characters makes much of an impression; in fact, other than Johnny, and this simply by dint of him being the nominal hero, all the male characters come off as rather weak-willed and/or impetuously stupid. No, the story here is of these two women -- the only two women in the film -- and the festering contempt that can drive people to ruin.
McCambridge, who would famously go on to voice the demon in The Exorcist, is a harrowing monster of single-minded mania as the repressed and commanding Emma. A truly fearsome creation of self-righteousness and laser-focused hatred, she literally quivers with malice, the image of the demise of Vienna and the Dancin' Kid -- who at one point shocks her into pudding by taking her for a quick spin while Johnny strums a tune -- offering her a kind of satisfaction that, if she thought about it, would defile her straight-laced sensibilities.
Crawford's flamboyant performance doesn't ground Johnny Guitar -- quite the opposite, in fact. Crawford's performance is so out of synch with...well, everything...it's downright ethereal. She's half man, half 30s-era movie queen, and everyone -- man, woman, and horse -- desires her. As campy as Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and a good decade-and-change too old for the part, by rights, this should have been a classic case of miscasting; instead, it gives the film a bizarre life of its own and makes it a truly unforgettable viewing experience. Vienna enflames the passions of every other character, whether they're lusting after her or plotting her destruction -- just as, apparently, Crawford did in real life, including on this film, where she was despised by McCambridge and Sterling, both whom publicly stated their contempt for her.
But Crawford brings an imperative presence to this outsized character, and the film wouldn't be the classic it is without her. Ray doesn't just direct her, he fetishizes her, building a mythologic character in a mythologic western on the back of the Hollywood mythology that by the '50s was Crawford. In the battle of sexual repression vs. sexual liberation, there could be but one victor, and that prize would always go to Crawford; Emma Smalls and her like never stood a chance. Ray takes full advantage of Crawford's overtly erotic nature, dressing her in tight cowboy gear or hyper-romantic finery. In one scene, she appears wearing a scarlet dressing gown. Alone in the saloon, she spins the roulette wheel just to hear the sound and throws her head back. It's an old Hollywood gesture in an old West setting, and the off-key confluence of context makes it startling.
Ray gives us frame after frame of overheated imagery and symbolism: Vienna's roulette wheel spinning aimlessly as the townspeople storm in to confront her; Emma dressed in black for mourning, looking all the world like a malevolent nun as she demands retribution on Vienna for imagined crimes, ripping a veil from her head as she leads a vengeance-seeking mob on horseback; a posse made up of men coming from a funeral, dressed in dignified black, chasing bandits, and later, that posse bursting through the saloon doors to reveal Vienna in a white gown playing the piano; earth-shattering explosions from the nearby railway construction punctuating the action; a fires-from-Hell inferno; an impromptu hanging; a corpse-littered endgame.
Besides being an astonishing hoot of a western, Johnny Guitar has been subject to many interpretations. Reportedly, Ray wanted to comment on the McCarthy witch hunts (something that was subtextually addressed in High Noon, as well, and which had a script that had been developed by blacklistee Ben Maddow, who went on to co-wrote the script for Johnny Guitar -- uncredited). Like Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller nearly 20 years later, Johnny Guitar can be seen as a commentary on capitalism. Of course, with its strong female characters front-and-center, Johnny Guitar is seen by many as an early feminist work; frankly, it wouldn't be too much of stretch to view it as a work of gay cinema: Crawford's butch saloon boss could easily be viewed as an object of desire by the frustrated Emma, and the Dancin' Kid -- a nickname that doesn't exactly cry out "macho" -- seems awfully attached to his young, boyishly pretty sidekick Turkey (Ben Cooper, The Rose Tattoo), much to the chagrin of gruff running buddy Bart (Ernest Borgnine, The Wild Bunch) who seems to have no use at all for women.
Johnny Guitar (Blu-ray) comes to us courtesy of Olive Films. First, the bad news: like virtually every home video release of Johnny Guitar, this one's 1.33:1 full frame, rather than its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio.
The good news is that the 1080p transfer looks really good. Every scene has at least one popping color -- a scarlet shirt, a kelly green scarf, an explosion of rich, brown earth against a crystal blue sky, the bright yellow wheels on a carriage -- and those are well-served in this transfer; fleshtones, not so much, with the players occasionally looking either a bit washed out or a bit too robust. Overall, though, it's a strong image, with a surprising amount of depth. The DTS-HD 1.0 Mono audio is clean, with dialogue and music served well.
The only supplement is a brief introduction to the film by Martin Scorsese. Recorded some time ago, the mere fact that it's Scorsese gives this weight; unfortunately, the presentation is awfully brief (around three minutes), though the director's insights and observations are welcome and thorough.
Its bizarre stylings make Johnny Guitar a great movie. While I wish there had been a few more meaningful supplements, the technical presentation here is very good. Highly recommended. In fact, this is a must see!
Review content copyright © 2012 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Olive Films
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 1954
MPAA Rating: Not Rated