Johnny Guitar April 6, 2018
1 Hr., 50 Mins.
icholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar was a curiosity in 1954 and still is now. What exactly are we supposed to make of it? It’s too melodramatic to be a conventional Western, too much a Western to be a traditional melodrama. It’s too underlyingly sexual to fit in with the other films in the cinematic zeitgeist of 60-plus years ago, too much a Joan Crawford vehicle to be called anything but. It’s cheap (Republic Pictures distributed it) yet
polychromatic and opulent. It’s campy, but smartly, almost knowingly, so. It's oversized, yet strangely economic and artistically minimalist. It's a baffling movie to be certain – what Crawford was hoping for when she bought the rights for the 1953 novel of the same name will forever perplex. It is a tangle of styles and ideas, with nothing ever quite sticking because the plot is rather uninvolving and because Ray never quite seems to know what to make of the material.
It is the style and the psychosexual subtext, then, that make Johnny Guitar land: No American films of the era dared to be so aesthetically oddish or sexually suggestive. The sets are all façades and colors and textures – think Mario Bava if he went down South and traded mad slashers for cowboys. All the characters seem to at once want to alternately fuck or kill each other. (And you can bet there are plenty allusions to bisexuality and sadomasochism here.)
So what is Johnny Guitar if not a cheapo erotic Western soap? I suppose it is primarily a Joan Crawford movie, with a trademark sign at the tail end of “movie” and everything. I consider this the pinnacle of her post-Mildred Pierce (1945) career – the moment in time where her autonomous-woman-with-killer-cheekbones-and-killer-ambitions persona doubled down in its rabidery and ate the surrounding movie. Just with cowboys and cacti and chestnut-colored “rocks” everywhere. Besides What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Trog (1970), it is the utmost question mark in her filmography – it simultaneously seems to suit her perfectly and make us ponder what the hell she thinks she’s doing here.
Because she’s no Randolph Scott or John Wayne: she’s basically playing Crawford the City Woman of days of vehicles past, her shoulder-padded powersuits traded for bodices. I wonder if she or Ray ever thought the movie was an oddball – or if they ever thought about how much it subtextually says underneath all the The Women (1939) in cowboy boots hullabaloo.
Because we sure do. In Johnny Guitar, Crawford is Vienna, a flinty saloonkeeper who practically runs the small Arizona town in which she does big business. Never mind that she’s a single woman with no clear means who somehow managed to become the iron fist of the region. As a bartender tells the movie’s other lead early on, “I never met a woman who was more a man.” And men, after all, rarely had or have to explain themselves when introduced as a film’s protagonist.
As Johnny Guitar opens, Vienna has apparently just begun the last act of her provincial dominance. The townsfolk have decided they’ve had enough of her. This mostly has to do with the fact that she supports the looming construction of a railroad, which will devastate the livelihoods and humble abodes of locals galore but will help bring more cash to her saloon.
The majority of the populace figures that, if they run her out of town, the building of the railroad will cease and they’ll finally have the power. All this is led by Vienna’s rival Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) and the gunslinger John (Ward Bond). Outnumbered, Vienna has no choice but to concede when she and her comrades – including her recently returned lover Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) – are given 24 hours to leave the premises.
Everyone in the movie, though, is a shameless conniver, and so it’s not much of a shock when Vienna and her assortment of toy boys don’t just back away in shame. The showdown which eventually comes is a knockout – a blast of a shoot ‘em up that leaves us feeling satisfied – but so much about Johnny Guitar, from its slippery dialogue to its Crawford-centric set pieces, is razzly dazzly and fun that it all makes for a rollicking good time even when it’s not in overdrive.
Johnny Guitar is so strange and intense, how could we resist it? (My favorite part is when Crawford sedately delivers a menacing monologue while playing a baby grand.) It does run a little long at 110 minutes, but when the sounds and colors are this heightened, the more fatiguing passages become forgivable. And who can forget about the never directly addressed love triangle between Crawford, Hayden, and McCambridge, which is so hateful yet lusty that it only makes sense that the three stars despised each other in real life? The takeaway here: this movie’s a ball. There was nothing like it in 1954, nothing like it now, and there probably will never be anything that compares. B+