|Johnny Guitar (1954)
Run time: 110 min
Genres: Drama | Western
Director: Nicholas Ray
Writers: Philip Yordan, Roy Chanslor
Stars: Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge
Director Ray’s unique western drama blends elements of German expressionism, film noir, and range-riding shoot-’em-ups to create a heady and intoxicating brew. A moody, visually striking work with mesmerizing performances by Crawford and McCambridge.
Release Date: 27 May 1954 (USA)
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Great cast and stunning direction makes this an offbeat classic. Funny interpretation of gender roles in America — Crawford as the emasculated nihilistic prostitute/businesswoman, and Hayden (in PERFECT casting) as a slightly pretty-boy gunslinger, a role in which he is as passive to Crawford as a typical film heroine to her hero. All bit parts are memorable, particularly the venomous McCambridge (one of her best characterizations — it makes my skin crawl every time I see her face light up as they burn the casino) and John Carradine’s memorably pathetic death scene.
A lot of people have said a lot of things about this movie. I was glad to see from glancing through the postings on IMDB that there is also some healthy discussion of the movie on here — how much it means, how little it means. I don’t think it was designed to save the world from its madness, nor do I think it’s a lesbian love story (although there is some strange element in McCambridge’s obsessive hatred of Crawford), but I do think there’s something going on beneath the surface of this film that’s hard to explain. Somehow, it ended up being much much better than it should have been. One thing is, I think Nick Ray and Phil Yordan decided the story was so ridiculous that they would just concentrate on the emotional elements, also bringing out the pure fantasy (going behind the waterfall to find a hidden fortress, the heroine running from the fire in her white satin dress, etc.) that is the best element of all great film. But it’s really hard to pin down any one element that makes it great, so I’ll have to stand pat and just say it’s a combination of elements that are operating on conscious and subconscious levels to bring about a fantastic movie experience — to those who are able to surrender to it.
One other element worthy of comment — the wonderful opening sequence where Hayden rides through a hillside covered in explosions. I really think that the quality of a good movie, and especially a western, can be seen most of the time in how well the director handles an opening sequence. He/she should capitalize on the viewer’s total lack of knowledge about the film’s situation to create moments of suspense or drama that couldn’t possibly occur once the story is set in motion. He should also use this suspense to create tension that will carry the movie forward. Nicholas Ray has done an excellent job of this here; we see Hayden riding through the explosions and wonder what’s going on, and then we see (through his eyes) the bank holdup, which he is doing nothing to stop. We don’t know if he’s a part of the robbery, we can’t really see who’s doing the robbing, etc. etc. — it just brings up a lot of questions that keep the audience wanting to see more.
An excellent production, one of Republic’s best.
Surely this allegorical western influenced Clint Eastwood when he directed his "Pale Rider" and "High Plains Drifter," though I’ve never read where he has mentioned it. There are certainly similarities, especially with "High Plains Drifter." The brilliant director Nicholas Ray who threw so much of himself and his search for artistic expression on film into his works at times carries the allegory too far. Good allegory, such as "Moby Dick" and "Huckleberry Finn," must never become too obvious. It then descends into mere cleverness and creative arrogance. The posse from Hell dressed in black led by a perverted Joan of Arc doesn’t leave much to the viewer’s imagination. Except for a few such parts, most of the movie purports itself well and tells an effective story that can be interpreted on several different levels.
Mercedes McCambridge playing the demonic sexually repressed Emma Small (again the name makes it too easy for the viewer) stands tall amongst a cast of giants. That her voice would be used for the devil’s own in "The Exorcist" is understandable for it crackles with fire and brimstone. Jealousy and rejection guide in her determination, nay obsession, to destroy both her sexual rival Vienna and her unrequited love the Dancin’ Kid. Sterling Hayden plays the lead character Johnny Logan aka Guitar to perfection. Hayden was not only under-appreciated by the Hollywood moguls but even by himself. In interviews he always trashed his acting talents in much the same way Robert Mitchum tended to do his own. He maintained he was just doing a job that he didn’t like very much. In reality Hayden was one of the best performers of his generation as was also true of Mitchum. Joan Crawford who was often miscast finds her niche in "Johnny Guitar." As her roulette spinner says to the camera,"She’s more of a man than a woman." She is in control at all times even when there’s a rope around her neck. She tells Johnny Guitar when to play his instrument and The Dancin’ Kid when to dance. She even holds the posse from Hell at bay until Emma Small steps in. Emma is also a woman in control but only of external forces. Inside, her emotions, fears, and frustrations dominate.
Ernest Borgnine was still playing bullies, which he did so well, at this point in his career. Royal Dano the consumptive gang member always true to The Dancin’ Kid gives his usual fine performance. Veteran actor John Carradine appears in somewhat of a different type role than usual as the loyal caretaker for Vienna. One part hearkens back to his best screen portrayal as Preacher Casy in "The Grapes of Wrath" when he tells Vienna that he’ll hide young Turkey out in the cottonwoods so the posse can’t find him. Nicolas Ray aided young aspiring actors with ability by showcasing their talents in his films. He introduced Dennis Hopper who has an uncredited bit part in "Johnny Guitar." Later Hopper would appear in Ray’s "Rebel Without a Cause" with James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo. Look for two other faces that were mainstays of the cinema Sheb Wooley ("High Noon"–he also wrote and recorded "The Purple People Eater")and Denver Pyle ("Bonnie and Clyde," "The Dukes of Hazzard"). There’s also the inimitable Ward Bond who could always be counted on to give a good performance.
Any show that starts out with a mountain being blown to pieces, a sand storm of Herculean proportions, and a stage coach holdup can be counted on to deliver the goods. The story about a railroad coming through to change the community takes second place to all the other storms and whirlwinds involving jealousy, greed, and murder. Emma and the posse from Hell are not just on a private vendetta. They are also trying to stop progress that threatens their very way of life. Railroads bring new people, new ideas, and new ways of making a living. Those who benefit from change like it. Those who are hurt by change fight against it with all their might. These forces mix with personal ones to make "Johnny Guitar" one of the best westerns ever. It’s not to be missed.
The music for "Johnny Guitar" is a definite plus. Peggy Lee sings the title song, which she helped compose with Victor Young, at the end of the movie as no one else could. She had a sultry blues voice with great feeling and emotion. Oft times she is dismissed as a mere pop singer from the 40’s and 50’s. Peggy Lee was much more. She was one of the great voices for her era. I couldn’t find information about who actually played guitar for Sterling Hayden. The picking is flawless. The closest I’ve come is the name Howard Roberts, who was the jazz guitarist that backed Peggy Lee on her later hit "Fever." I’ve read that he could play anything on any type guitar. The dance song picked by Johnny Guitar that inspired The Dancin’ Kid to dance with Emma was "Ol’ Joe Clark," a folk ditty, usually played on the fiddle, that was popular during the time period thus adding authenticity to the show.
I was 15 the very first time I watched this wonderful movie, and from that moment it became a kind of cult classic, a cinema icon, for me. I had to wait over ten years to be able to enjoy it again, and by this time it had reached the category of legend on my personal film paradise. The great score by Victor Young, which I never could forget, is probably the most romantic and sentimental music ever composed for the screen, with the Johnny Guitar theme, with the voice of Peggy Lee, bringing us the fascination of the legend they called Johnny Guitar. Also the fantastic colourful images, with those reddish tones of fire and passion, and the backgrounds, the landmarks, the characters and the sutile and perfect dialogues, make this film a total masterpiece or modern cinema. A western without savages, cavalry, rodeos, and the usual John Ford stuff. A different western, ahead of its time, and very misunderstood by the public then, but, fortunately, reborn from the limbo and forgiveness, rediscovered by new generations, and still alive, fresh as in its first day, and always inmortal. Joan Crawford was never so great, and the exchange of poisoned words with McCambridge at the saloon "You haven’t got the nerve" , and "If I don’t kill you first" on reply to "I’ll kill you" by Emma, makes me to smile, as both characters show they wear the trousers rather than the men do. In short, there never was a film like Johnny Guitar, and there never will. Now, on its 50th aniversary, it is time to enjoy it once more, and to wish that we could have been at Vienna’s, being part of that group of characters with no equal in cinema iconography.
When Johnny Guitar opened in Brazil probably in 1955, it was released through a big chain of movie theaters and I remember it being quite successful at the box office, no doubt also helped by the song that was a huge hit. Except for a few critics, most people took it just as a good western with no second thoughts. But there was more to it, "as François Truffaut wrote in his review when it was first shown in France "Never trust in appearances. Beauty and profundity are not always found in the "obvious" traditional places; a Trucolor Western from humble Republic can throb with the passion of "l’amour fou" or whisper with an evening delicacy."" (from "The Western" by Phil Hardy, page232). Seeing it recently I was impressed with the fast pace of the film, the great dialogs, the unusual settings, the incredibly strong presence of Joan Crawford, the hysterical character played by Mercedes McCambridge. Nicholas Ray was a creative director and his great achievement in this film was to take the story seriously, and not try to make a satire.