Director: Nicholas Ray
Cast: Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge
Watch Johnny Guitar online in the UK: Netflix UK
A favourite of French New Wave icon François Truffaut, Johnny Guitar, Nicholas Ray’s visually striking, female-headed western, confounded audiences and American critics on its cinema release in 1954. Too much drama and not enough Western action: that was the general consensus. It’s easy to see why. Even now, Johnny Guitar is a distinctly melancholic genre piece.
The titular musician (Hayden) rides into the middle of a bitter schism between Vienna (Crawford), a tenacious saloon owner, and her vengeful rival, Emma (McCambridge). Unlike Vienna, Emma and her chums are vehemently against the incoming railroad and they’ll stop at nothing to get their way. Emma leads a witch-hunt against Vienna, with Johnny on the saloon owner’s side, on account of their storied past. Crawford commands every scene she’s in, with her dauntless physicality and disarming stare a bandolier’s worth of ammunition. It’s a memorable and daring performance, made all the more impressive for its position in such a traditionally masculine genre.
This is a case of a female character being given the depth and complexity usually only afforded to male characters in Westerns. The film still features a lot of classical macho posturing, but it’s always under the gaze of a woman. This makes for an interesting dynamic. Vienna sees the blurred line that separates boy and man, and offers her sympathy to both sides, even if it puts her in danger. The central clash, though, is between a despicable woman (Emma) and a flawed (but ultimately good) woman (Vienna). They represent two versions of the mother, with Vienna the mentor to the men and Emma the chastiser. Emma represents a Freudian super-ego usually occupied by the regulatory voice of the father, as she is desperate to keep the community stuck in the past.
It’s a kick in the teeth, then, that simple old Johnny gets the honour of the title. Hayden makes for a solid grizzled cowboy, but Crawford’s so compelling she eclipses everyone around her. This is emphasised by the striking costuming, shot with Trucolor. Vienna’s scarlet neckties burst off the screen beneath her piercing blue eyes – in contrast to the dirt brown and black wardrobes of those around her. Westerns have long dealt in colour coding (black hats: bad; white hats: good etc.), but Ray dares the viewer to look at anyone other than Vienna.
The film was written by uncredited blacklisted screenwriter Philip Yordan and the central witch-hunt parallels 50s-era McCarthyism. It’s effective on an allegorical and atmospheric level, but not particularly captivating as a narrative. His predicament is reflected in the film’s quiet, morally grey mood. The foreboding melodies of Victor Young’s score and the swirling dust storm of the opening really set the tone. Johnny Guitar is a layered, character-driven genre offering that refuses to adhere to the gung-ho tropes of its most American genre.
Johnny Guitar is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.