Thursday, July 14, 2011

Johnny Guitar (1954)

Seen: On VHS on my tv, rented from the Tisch Library at Tufts.

Hard-edged bar owner Vienna (Joan Crawford) finds herself on the verge of being run out of town when she is implicated in a stagecoach robbery and murder. Her nemesis Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), who owns most of the town, is worried that when the new railroad runs through the area Vienna and her partners will profit. Vienna is reunited with old flame Johnny (Sterling Hayden) after five years, and he helps her defend herself against the easily-incited townspeople led by a jealous woman hungry for a lynching.

When Jake recommended Johnny Guitar as "Just this crazy gender-bending Western by a bisexual director", I thought... Huh. Let's get on that. Looking into it more I discovered it's not on DVD in the US, but has been passionately endorsed by many critics and fans, including Martin Scorsese, who sponsored a special VHS release of it. It is frequently described as strange and unconventional and hard to explain, so I was expecting something truly out-there. These expectations may be why I was a little bit underwhelmed. It's a cool movie, no doubt about it, but I didn't find it as crazy or weird as some had hyped it, and I kept waiting for something wild to happen. To me it felt like a fairly typical western whose central character was ahead of her time. Then again I'm no expert on westerns.

Crawford is excellent as the tough-as-nails Vienna. She's got hard eyes, a strong shooting arm, and a good head for business, making her an anomaly as a woman in this community. Plus she is rockin' those pants. At times she even appears a bit villainous, but when set against the half-crazed Emma, her motivations and actions are completely justified. The actresses clashed in real life as well (then again, who didn't clash with Crawford, jeez), and their animosity shows marvelously onscreen. Both women play bold, impassioned characters, and their performances reach glorious levels of camp that culminate in a fantastic climactic scene.

Oh, Sterling Hayden's there too. Honestly most of the men in this movie are pretty forgettable, except Ernest Borgnine, who plays a temperamental gangmember who only looks out for himself. Really though, it's all about the ladies.

I liked the mix of western shootouts, small-town politics, and love triangle romance, though the three elements don't always blend perfectly and I never really got a handle on the pacing. Some scenes are tense and explosive while others are suddenly low-key and dragged-out. Not a huge complaint, though. The cinematography is gorgeous, with eye-popping oversaturation and lovely settings. I loved the costumes, which included extremely colorful (to the point of gaudy) outfits for Joan and her pals and in contrast a grim collection of black funeral garb for the village posse. Nice musical score, too.

To sum up: Johnny Guitar is an interesting, exciting western with a killer lady character at the head, and that's so awesome. But my expectations of something more out-there made me slightly disappointed.


Pair This Movie With: For another great western featuring a strong lady, there's True Grit. I was also reminded of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode "Gunslinger", featuring a Roger Corman-directed western with a vengeful lady sheriff. Yeah you heard me correctly, a LADY who's a SHERIFF! Or maybe it was marshall. Whatever, either way it's CRAZY!

Side note: I feel like if I really tried I could recommend an MST3K episode for most movies I review. But I probably won't do that.


  1. Johnny Guitar definitely isn't for all tastes, and it's also not truly "out there" -- but it is a wrench in the machine of Hollywood classicism. Its style is radical (those outrageous colors and costumes!), as are its politics, both with the female gunslingers and the blatant anti-HUAC sentiments.

    And it's so offbeat, and all that banter... yeah, I love this movie. Especially Mercededs McCambridge being psychotic and freely violent. I'm glad you enjoyed it, even if it didn't quite live up to your expectations!

    (My review from a year and a half ago:

  2. I think CS said he had Crawford planned for an upcoming LAMB Acting School. I was planning to write about this movie as well.

  3. Alex I truly love this film and many of Nick Ray's works. For a western, it's incredibly subversive, especially considering the time period. It's filled with lurid, campy performances and innuendo and stands to this day as one of the most fasinating films from one of Hollywood's greatest directors. Needless to say, The French New Wavers loved this stuff from Ray and found great inspiration from it. I think this film deserves the Blu-Ray treatment on a dvd.

  4. Andreas: Yeah Mercedes McCambridge was so intense! Didn't Crawford try to blacklist her after this because she was jealous of her? Off to read your review now!

    Rich: Oh cool! I look forward to reading your thoughts about it!

    Jonny: I need to see more of Ray's films- I've only seen this and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. What would you recommend? And yeah it's not even on dvd so the blu-ray is probably a long way off! Would look so great in hi-def though.

  5. Hey Alex,

    I just saw Ray's brilliant Bigger Than Life (and reviewed it), and it's available in a beautiful Blu-Ray. It's my favorite film by Ray. In a Lonely Place also has a huge following and is considered by many to be one of the top 5 film noirs of all time.

  6. Fun film, although not necessarily a good one. Crawford, who can suck the last remnants out of any role no matter how standard it is (this is not a compliment) took centre stage here, eclipsing Hayden entirely. I'm a huge Hayden fan, so I was not impressed. To be fair, though, he was miscast, too.
    For a bit of scandal, I suggest you read up on Nicholas Ray, Gloria Grahame, and how their marriage ended :-)

  7. I should add, by the way, that In a Lonely Place is my favourite Ray movie. Great film!