Johnny Guitar (Preview)
Reviewed by Catherine Russell

Produced by Nicholas Ray and Herbert J. Yates; directed by Nicholas Ray; screenplay by Philip Yordan; cinematography by Harry Stradling; edited by Richard L. Van Enger; art direction by James Sullivan; costume design by Sheila O’Brien; original score by Victor Young starring Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, Scott Brady, Ward Bond, and Tom Carradine. Blu-ray, color, 116 mins. 1954. An Olive Signature release.

Johnny Guitar was shot in the dramatic landscape of Sedona, Arizona, which before this new Blu-ray release featuring the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio could be glimpsed only at the edges of the frame. While the terrain is still mere background to a melodrama of loyalty and desire, the film’s coloring and staging make much more sense when complemented by the vista of towering, sculptured red mesas. Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) rides into town without a gun, but by the time he leaves he has been revealed as the fastest draw in the West. Robert Warshow noted many years ago that the Western hero is the man who knows when not to shoot. The cowboy with the guitar is thus emblematic of the Westerner who knows how to play the part, but chooses his roles and when to play them. Johnny Guitar is all about role playing, but it is a dangerous game with high stakes because it turns out that in 1954 America neither playing the guitar nor making movies was “just entertainment.” By the end of the movie, Johnny’s guitar has long been abandoned, but he has gained the love of a woman (Joan Crawford) who is introduced to the audience early in the film, in direct address, as “more a man than a woman.”

Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954).

Order is eventually restored over a series of dead bodies, but through its unsettling of gender roles in the surreal landscape of Sedona, Nicholas Ray’s film serves as a ballad for a time of deep distrust in Hollywood. “Operatic” is the term that best describes this production, noted for its archetypal figures, dramatic choreography, costume changes, and extraordinary use of color, even if the romantic musical theme, scored by Victor Young, is applied with a light touch. If Johnny Guitar has become a cult film for the blacklist era, it is because the drama of naming names and taking sides is set within a mise en scène built of fire, water, earth, and air, the latter in the form of dust clouds that often obscure the view.

Olive Films’s new Blu-ray of Johnny Guitar is packed with special features that provide substantial context for this multilayered film, including analysis from critics Miriam Bale, B. Ruby Rich, Kent Jones, Joe McElhaney, and Larry Ceplair, a commentary by Geoff Andrew, and an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum. Mark Wannamaker provides some detail on Republic Pictures and owner Herbert Yates’s ambitions in the early 1950s to become a major studio by casting established stars like Crawford, and investing in Trucolor, which was both cheaper and more garish than Technicolor. The psychological Western was gaining traction through the success of Anthony Mann’s films, among others, and kingmaker Lew Wasserman brought the Johnny Guitar package to Republic with Ray as an independent producer–director along with Crawford and the original script by Ray Chanslor. Credit for the blacklist allegory seems to go mainly to Philip Yordan, who substantially altered Chanslor’s story, even though he was a front for many blacklisted screenwriters (the theory that blacklisted writer Ben Maddow might have written it seems to be largely discredited). Crawford herself forced the issue of her own cross-dressed character by picking a well-publicized fight during the production with Mercedes McCambridge who plays her nemesis Emma Small in the film. Crawford threatened to quit if Yordan didn’t come out to Sedona to rewrite her part so that it would be bigger than Hayden’s—even demanding a climactic shootout with McCambridge, with which Yordan obliged her.

As B. Ruby Rich points out, Johnny Guitar was embraced as a feminist Western in the 1970s mainly because there were usually so few women with power to be found on or off screen. Crawford’s character Vienna is completely uncompromising, and not without maternal instincts, even if she capitulates in the end to the romantic impulse of the genre. When Vienna confronts Emma and her posse who have come to run her out of town, she orders her dealer to stop spinning the roulette wheel. She is in charge. Her saloon, her future, is built on the business of gambling, sex, and booze, but she has carefully scoped out the future that will come with the railway. She even has a tabletop model of the new town in her bar, complete with toy trains, but, as fate would have it, she loses it all to Emma’s fiery rage.

In addition to the catfight, Johnny Guitar is a continual testing of masculinities, as its title promises. The Dancing Kid (Scott Brady), who the two women are supposedly fighting over, is clearly in love with the young member of his gang called Turkey (Ben Cooper)—and both of them are casualties of the violence that grips the town. Ernest Borgnine as Bart, another member of the Dancing Kid’s silver mining gang, and Ward Bond as John McIvers, the mayor of the unnamed (and unseen) town, provide ample bona-fide manhood pumped up as arrogant paternalism. The mayor is accompanied by a crowd of funereal apprentices, silently taking up space, while the Kid’s gang, besides Turkey and Bart, includes Cory (Royal Dano), a consumptive bookworm. Vienna’s loyal dealers and bartenders are all men, whose green visors match the card tables. Her venerable cook (John Carradine) is emasculated in turn through his name of “Old Tom,” so it is a complicated, competitive man’s world in which Vienna and Emma pitch their battle…

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Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 2