Well, after dealing with fairies, fauns, and fascists it looks like it’s time to change things up pretty drastically and take a trip to the Old West. This week I’ve pulled a film that’s long been on my “to-watch” list, but one that I’m seeing for the first time, the cult favorite Western Johnny Guitar. I’ve heard about this movie for quite some time, often ending up on lists of favorite Westerns, while also topping lists of cult movies, weirdo campy masterpieces, and movies with insane female-performances at the helm. I didn’t really know anything at all about the film other than the idea that it was a Western, it was held in fairly high esteem, and it starred Joan Crawford putting in one of the most “Joan Crawford” performances she ever gave. Other than that I went it basically blind. Director Nicholas Ray is someone who I haven’t really had that much experience with, but everything I’ve seen of his has been terrific. In a Lonely Place is a terrific noir, and one that manages to really play with Humphrey Bogart’s movie-star persona in a really fascinating way, and Rebel Without a Cause really is as transfixing and interesting as its reputation leads you to believe. So, that also helped me go into Johnny Guitar with high hopes, because it certainly seems like Ray is a director whose filmography I need to catch up on. And, after checking out this film I definitely need to seek out more Nicholas Ray films, because this is the third fantastic movie of his I’ve seen. Johnny Guitar is a wonderfully weird little film that grabs you from the first minute and keeps you enthralled until its last moments, absolutely blowing me away that a movie like this was released in 1954.
The film actually began life in order to fulfill some contract requirements, because Nicholas Ray and Joan Crawford were scheduled to make a film together which fell apart due to a lackluster script that just couldn’t be fixed. So, instead Crawford decided to push forward an adaptation of Johnny Guitar, a novel written by Roy Chanslor which had actually been dedicated to her, and that she held the rights to. So, she got the film set up at Republic Pictures and got Ray hired as the director. Unfortunately, as is seemingly so often the case with films that stared Joan Crawford, it wasn’t an easy shoot. Nicholas Ray and Joan Crawford were seemingly having an affair at the time, and he allowed all of her worst impulses to take over, leading to her dominating the other cast members, and garnering a sour reputation with most of them. It also didn’t help that Mercedes McCambridge, who was brought on to play Crawford’s nemesis in the film, seemed to dislike Crawford quite a bit due to love triangles the two had been in. Ray seemed to think that having this sort of background made their feud in the film that much stronger, but it also seemed to lead to a rather hostile working environment. The two fought about their issues, McCambridge’s alcoholism, and a specific event where Crawford threw some of McCambridge’s clothes in the street. And, all of this came together to make a film that didn’t make much of an impact at the time. It got bad reviews, and made a bit of money, but largely seemed to rub people the wrong way. However, over the years the film’s reputation started to change, and it has gone on to be considered one of Ray’s finest films, and a classic of the Western genre. It also holds the distinction of becoming a personal favorite of towering figure of the French New Wave scene, Francois Truffaut. The film was held up by European art directors as an example of art that could sometimes escape the American studio system, and eventually Americans caught up with this appraisal. And, let me tell you, it’s a fascinating film.
The film begins with the titular Johnny Guitar, a drifter making his way towards and Arizona cattle town at the behest of a former lover of his, a woman named Vienna. She has set up shop in a saloon that she built with her own money after seducing some men from a railroad company and learning that the area around this saloon would soon become a town, positioning herself as a prominent figure in a new town. However, the locals haven’t taken too kindly to Vienna, partly because she’s a woman owning her own business, partly because she seems to have had a history of prostitution, and partly because she’s grown chummy with a group of men that the town assume are outlaws. The Dancin’ Kid, Bart Lonergan, Turkey Ralston, and Corey claim that they work in a secret silver mine, but cause lots of problems in the town, casing the various townsfolk to despise them, and Vienna by association. So, she’s reached out to Johnny Guitar, asking him to come play his guitar in her saloon, while secretly hoping that he’ll help protect her, because she knows that he’s actually a rather infamous gunslinger named Johnny Logan, who is trying to escape his past. However, as Johnny reaches the town, things start to fall apart, because a wagon has just been robbed at gunpoint by a group of outlaws.
The various townsfolk, seemingly led by a woman named Emma Small, arrive at Vienna’s saloon, ready to hang her and the Dancin’ Kid’s gang. They’re convinced that the gang held up the stagecoach, and think that Vienne was involved in the crime. Vienna tries to calm the situation down, but Emma’s virulent hatred for Vienna becomes too hot to handle, and an argument begins that quickly gets out of control when the Dancin’ Kid and his men just so happen to show up to get drunk. At which point John McIvers, the leader of the town, declares that Vienna and the Dancin’ Kid gang need to vacate the town in 24 hours, or else be killed. Vienna is furious about this, since she didn’t do anything wrong, and knows that Emma Small is just making all of this happen because she’s in love with the Dancin’ Kid, and hates that Vienna and he have been having an affair. But, after talking it through with Johnny, she seems resigned to the fact that the world isn’t fair, and that it’ll probably be for the best that she just moves on, and tries to find another life somewhere.
Unfortunately, the Dancin’ Kid and his gang don’t reach the same conclusion. They didn’t actually rob that stagecoach, but they become so incensed that they decide they should rob something. So, the next day they head to the town bank to rob it before skipping town. And, it just so happens that Johnny and Vienna were in the bank at that moment, collecting all of Vienna’s money. So, when the townsfolk learn of the robbery, and Vienna’s presence, they decide that she was masterminding the whole thing. The Dancin’ Kid gang try to escape town, but are blocked by some railroad expansion, causing them to go to their secret hideout, while the youngest member of their group, Turkey, is wounded and left with Vienna. Vienna tries to hide the boy when Emma and the townsfolk appear, but they end up finding Turkey, and decide to hang him and Vienna. They do manage to kill Turkey, but before Vienna can be hanged she’s saved by Johnny, and the two flee to find the Dancin’ Kid and his gang, hoping to get help from them. The Dancin’ Kid is willing to help Vienna, because he’s in love with her, but Bart Lonergan has grown a quick dislike of Johnny Guitar, and ends up finding Emma and the townsfolk, showing them where the secret hideout is. Bart and Corey end up killing each other after Corey learns of Bart’s betrayal, and the townsfolk arrive to capture Dancin’ Kid, Vienna, and Johnny Guitar. But, Emma wants to be the one to kill Vienna, and the two end up in a duel, which ends with Vienna getting shot in the shoulder. The Dancin’ Kid then tries to stop Emma, getting shot in the head in the process. At which point Vienna shoots Emma, killing her instantly. The townsfolk, horrified at what has happened, then let Vienna and Johnny Guitar leave, not wanting any more bloodshed.
It’s always a great experience to learn about a film that has gained a cultish appreciation and following, and then immediately realize why it’s been given that sort of affection. Sometimes cult movies get that sort of designation because they’re laughably bad or weird, but sometimes it’s because it’s just a strange little film that was years ahead of when it was released. And, that’s kind of the case with Johnny Guitar. This is a film that I’m absolutely stunned was released in the mid 1950’s, a time when the genre was so dominated by cookie-cutter stagnation. Because this really is unlike any Western from the era I’ve ever seen. It’s full of lavish colors and production design, somewhat arch performances, and some truly shocking subject matter. I couldn’t quite believe it when the film actually executes Turkey, and the final shootout with not one but two brutal head-shots really shocked me. Most American Westerns of the time seemed to portray a mythical West, full of pulpy square-jawed heroes fighting villainous caricatures, but this is a movie that seemed to portray the West as the chaotic and ugly place that it really was, which just really doesn’t seem to be something that was happening in 1954. Joan Crawford is a very strange actress, one who I’ve always enjoyed when I see her act, but I almost hesitate to call her acting “good.” It’s very unique, and this is perhaps the most “Joan Crawfordy” performance I’ve ever seen her put in, and it works beautifully in the film. Everyone’s great in the movie, putting in these wonderfully weird performances that help bring the surreality of the story to life, but it’s clearly Crawford who walks away with the movie.
I read some negative reviews of the time that seemed to hold Crawford and her movie star persona against the film. She was thought of as a very modern actress, and people just didn’t seem to want to see Crawford in an Old West setting. But, what remains the most shocking about this film is the way that Crawford is portrayed. Like I said, so many Westerns of this era are pretty cookie-cutter. Vaguely handsome white cowboys defend the virtue of their family, fighting against the evils of the world as portrayed by American Indians or villainous outlaws. And yet, here’s a film that is completely dominated by the power of two women. Yeah, Johnny Guitar and the Dancin’ Kid seem to be fairly standard Western heroes/villains, but they’re both love-sick dopes who are being manipulated by one of the most fascinating female protagonists I’ve ever seen in a Western. Vienna is a protagonist who is taking charge of her life, whatever way she can. She’s realized the power she has over men, and since this is a world heavily dominated by men she uses that power to the full extent that she can to get what she wants. But, she’s not looking for power or revenge. She just wants something that’s hers. She built her saloon herself, hired a family of employees, and just wants it to be the best damn saloon it can be. But, she’s caught up in a frustrating love-triangle that sours and ends with the death of five people. And, by the end of the film, she’s forced to give up everything that she’s built because of the simple-mindedness of those around her, and heads off into the sunset to try and pick up the broken pieces of her life. It’s not fair, but it’s the way that America works sometimes.
Johnny Guitar was written by Philip Yordan, directed by Nicholas Ray, and released by Republic Pictures, 1954.
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