Johnny Guitar (1954) is the most spellbinding, psychosexual, genre-bending Western film ever made. Critics were not kind when it first came out, but it has grown to become a cult favorite and one of bisexual director Nicholas Ray‘s indisputable classics.
The most bizarre thing about this film is that, at first, it’s hard to attach it to one genre. Johnny Guitar is a film that is many things to many people, from camp spectacular to revisionist epic, and nearly every interpretation seems viable. Though the setting, the characters, and the wardrobe fit into a typical Western perfectly, Johnny Guitar starts off quite unpredictably and stays this way till the very end. It’s an oddly radical movie, one that’s not afraid to step beyond established boundaries of the 1950s, to show its mad, subversive, yet astonishingly creative essence.
The story is ostensibly about cattle ranchers and town folk, those who are happy with life as it is and those who want change. The ranchers don’t want the town to become a city, while those in town welcome the arrival of the train and the business it will bring.
When a lone ranger, sublimely named ”Johnny Guitar”, played by Sterling Hayden, obviously with a guitar in his hand, steps into a saloon, no one gets out of the whole affair unharmed. He has arrived in town to find solace and earn a living, but his arrival only foreshadows a dramatic series of events. Soon a mob steps into the saloon, ravishingly angry at its owner, a mysterious woman named Vienna, played by Joan Crawford, and her friend ”Dancin’ Kind” (Scott Brady) and his entourage.
After a robust exchange, the crowd leaves the place, but promises revenge for the death of their fellow citizens, killed that day in a stagecoach holdup. Vienna knows that it’s the work of her thuggish buddies, but still decides to help them. Unfortunately, she doesn’t realize that the leader of the mob, the psychotic, temperamental, and very persuasive Emma Small (a demented Mercedes McCambridge) will do almost everything in order to see Vienna’s demise.
Their first encounter in the film has Emma standing stiffly with her men behind her and Vienna looking down on them as she descends a staircase. Emma approaches, and the scene ends with Emma declaring: ”I’m going to kill you”. Vienna icily replies with classic Crawford disdain: ”I know. If I don’t kill you first”. That sort of exchange is the territory of men in almost every other Western. From there, the lesbian overtones start to show themselves.
In the meantime, Johnny Guitar is not what he seems. Behind the tranquil mask of a gentle guitar player hides a dark past, which involves Vienna, a romance, and a gun craze. Fortunately for Vienna and her tough friends, Johnny might be the savior everyone has been looking for, but inevitably also the one who might be the cause of their defeat. Ironically, in the amazingly rambling and climatic finale the two groups take part in a deadly shootout and the result is quite satisfying, to say the least.
Johnny Guitar is high camp, and a bit too melodramatic, yet it is still a strangely unforgettable Western with a lot of sexual tension, all wrapped up in a nice, bold, politically relevant package. The film works as a pointed, hidden commentary on the McCarthy Hearings and the Hollywood Blacklist of the era.
Emma is jealous of Vienna’s easiness with men, becomes obsessed, and is finally ready to finish off her old rival. Now she finally got her motive, and she’s ready to do some damage, unaware of the repulsion her behavior causes. Vienna is her counterpart, a strong and independent female who is loved by all men and loathed by all women.
Johnny Guitar has female characters front and center, and the duel between them is the film’s most effective sequence. The tension, the sexual drive, the raging id, and the women’s anger, make the men look small. Still, the stupendous cast includes great male Western players to back them up: Ernest Borgnine, Ward Bond, John Carradine, Ben Cooper, and Denver Pyle. It is almost like the cast of a John Ford film, plus Crawford!
In the NY Times review, Bosley Crowther singled out Crawford’s physicality, stating:
“… no more femininity comes from her than from the rugged Van Heflin in Shane. For the lady, as usual, is as sexless as the lions on the public library steps and as sharp and romantically forbidding as a package of unwrapped razor blades.”
The film was beloved by François Truffaut, who described it as the “Beauty and the Beast of Westerns, a Western dream“. Truffaut was especially impressed by the film’s bold extravagance: the colors, the poetry of the dialogue, and the theatricality which results in cowboys vanishing and dying “with the grace of ballerinas“.
In Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown (1988), gay Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar pays homage to the film. The lead character Pepa Marcos (Carmen Maura), a voice artist, passes out while dubbing Vienna’s voice in a scene where Johnny (voiced earlier by Pepa’s ex-lover Iván) and Vienna banter about their conflicted past. Almodóvar’s film also ends with a chase and an obsessed woman shooting at the lead character.
Crawford and Ray had been scheduled to make a film called Lisbon at Paramount, but the project never panned out. Crawford held the film rights to the book Johnny Guitar, which author Roy Chanslor had dedicated to her. She brought story to Republic Pictures and had them hire Ray to direct.
Crawford wanted either Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck to play Emma Small, but they wanted too much money. Ray eventually chose McCambridge. Crawford and McCambridge did not get along from the start, but Ray was not concerned. He thought it was okay that they disliked each other because it added to the dramatic conflict. Their feud went back to when Crawford had a thing with McCambridge’s future husband, director Fletcher Markle. According to some of their co-stars, McCambridge needled Crawford about it. McCambridge disliked that Crawford and Ray were having an affair while shooting. Crawford was jealous of the “special attention” that Ray gave to McCambridge. Making things worse, McCambridge and Crawford were drinking a lot during this period.
After filming, McCambridge and Hayden publicly declared their distaste for Crawford, with McCambridge telling the press that Crawford was “a mean, tipsy, powerful, rotten-egg lady“. Hayden told Photoplay Magazine:
“There is not enough money in Hollywood to lure me into making another picture with Joan Crawford. And I like money.”
Ray claimed that Crawford, during a rage, drunkenly threw McCambridge’s costumes into the street. Ray:
“Joan was drinking a lot and she liked to fight, but that she was also very attractive, with a basic decency.”
Johnny Guitar, plenty of drama on and off the screen. Its lurid, Trucolor-soaked veneer is always ready to be mined for meaning. It needs to be experienced.