A dynamic, one of a kind cult classic like no other
Have you ever gone to a movie with someone and afterwards it seems as if you both saw different films? Just as our personal histories and beliefs influence how we perceive the world, they also color how we view movies, and this week’s cult classic “Johnny Guitar” is one fun and entertaining example. This wonderfully unconventional Western invites multiple interpretations and as such, has been described as camp, feminist, Freudian, Queer, adult, subversive, existential, and a statement on McCarthyism. Martin Scorsese described it as “one of cinema’s great operatic works”, François Truffaut called it the “Beauty and the Beast of Westerns”, and Cahiers du Cinéma named it the 22nd Top film of all-time. While this gem of a movie is all these things, when taken at face value, “Johnny Guitar” is also a major popcorn-eating treat.
A lone guitar-carrying drifter rides on horseback high in the red rock hills of Arizona. There’s a sudden explosion, and another, and then he sees a stagecoach being held-up at gunpoint in the valley below, ending in murder. As he continues to ride, a dust storm brews and he takes refuge in a gambling saloon named “Vienna’s” in the middle of nowhere. The man on the horse goes by the name of “Johnny Guitar”, and he was hired by the saloon’s owner, “Vienna”, to play guitar in her establishment. Just after he arrives, the dust storm blows in a woman named “Emma Small” with a mob of local men carrying the body of the murdered man from the stagecoach, who turns out to be “Emma’s” brother. Though there were no witnesses, “Emma” wants to pin his murder on a man named “The Dancin’ Kid” and his bunch, as well as “Vienna”. And thus sets the stage for “Johnny Guitar”.
A tough and savvy business woman, “Vienna” was a former saloon girl who sold her body to earn enough money to buy land and build her own saloon. She resourcefully built it on the outskirts of town in the path of a soon-to-be built railroad, with the intention of allowing a depot on her land and starting a whole new town. The locals fear this, particularly wealthy cattle ranchers “Emma” and “John McIvers”, who own the entire town and every head of beef within 500 miles. Their greed keeps them against the railroad and the change it will bring, and they give “Vienna”, “The Dancin’ Kid” and his gang twenty-four hours to leave town. But “Emma” won’t stop there. As she says to “Vienna”, “I won’t sleep till I see both of you hanged, you and the ‘Kid’ and all of your filthy kind”. Deep-rooted emotions such as this permeate this film, making for complex relationships and gripping entertainment.
As directed by Nicholas Ray, “Johnny Guitar” is primarily about style and themes – all of which outshine its plot and action. The film consciously invents its own heightened and mannered world through grandiose performances, saturated colors, curious settings, radically dramatic moments, and dialogue that more often sparks questions than provides answers. There are themes that float about like repeating refrains on power, greed, bitterness, revenge, false blame, and fear of the outsider. It's a world where walk through a waterfall enchantingly leads to a secret lair, a shot glass rolling on a bar becomes ominous and the sound of a roulette wheel echoes the emotions of “Vienna”. This gloriously stylized universe transcends reality and turns into a splendidly vivid and precarious dream. It's a wondrous use of cinema.
“Johnny Guitar” unfolds like a poem. It presents dynamic visuals, dialogue, action, and symbolism, but lets us fill in the meaning. “Vienna’s” costumes are a fine example. She begins and ends the film wearing men’s clothing, which can be seen as a statement of power, strength and an unwavering sense of herself. Her final outfit was borrowed from an innocent victim, inviting interpretations about defiance or good over evil. When she talks about love with “Johnny”, she does so in a feminine pink nightdress, and dons a manly shirt and tie with a skirt the morning after they sleep together. And most jarringly, she wears a glaring white dress while waiting for the angry mob as if it were a bold sign of her innocence (and while wearing it, plays the piano on a raised platform, underlining her elevated purity and morals over the mob). The film is riddled with such subtexts which can be dissected or ignored and watched at face value.
Ray creates this dreamlike world through understated and nontraditional methods. Characters strangely seem to look and speak directly to us at times, and there’s a slow, mannered speech to all of them. He films things from unusual angles, such as from above, or the beautifully framed shot through a window as “Emma” and the mob first arrive to “Vienna’s”. Ray also employs unorthodox staging and carefully choreographed blocking of his actors. You’ll notice the mob’s aesthetically pleasing formation during their first confrontation with “Vienna”, when they see a dead body, or how the mob takes one step forward in unison when “The Dancin’ Kid” and his mates first arrive to “Vienna’s”. It may be artificial, but makes the film mysteriously engaging and highly evocative.
Ray had a hand in editing his films, and his spectacular cutting in “Johnny Guitar” (with editor Richard L. Van Enger) is also unusual, as he frequently cuts away from characters before they finish saying their lines, often at highly dramatic moments (“Emma” even gives a small speech as she leaves “Vienna’s” in which we see her come and go but not speak her lines, we only hear them). Ray’s work creatively utilizes the medium of film to its utmost. And because he was a director who excelled at making films about misfits, juvenile delinquents, non-conformists, and outsiders – particularly those rejected by a corrupt society, “Johnny Guitar” was perfect fodder in his hands.
Wisconsin-born Nicholas Ray was a bit of a troublemaker and excessive drinker in his youth, but found his way to drama and public speaking by the time he entered college. He worked in theater, took to writing, and apprenticed with legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright for a year before they had a major fallout (believed to have had something to do with Ray's bisexuality and Wright's homophobia). Ray then moved to New York City and worked in theater and radio where he met two men who greatly influenced his life and career – Elia Kazan and John Houseman. When Kazan went to Hollywood to direct his first film (1945's "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn"), he asked Ray to join him as an assistant. Afterwards, Houseman summoned Ray back to New York to assist him in directing "Sorry, Wrong Number" for TV. Ray then directed his only Broadway show, "Beggar's Holiday" in 1946. Houseman lent Ray the novel "Thieves Like Us", which Ray adapted for the screen, cowriting the script, and the film turned out to be his film directing debut, the 1949 noir "They Live by Night". Because of issues at RKO Studios, the film was released after Ray's second and third features, RKO’s "A Woman's Secret" starring Gloria Graham (whom he married), and "Knock On Any Door” starring Humphrey Bogart (who requested Ray direct it). Ray continuously directed films at RKO, and was loaned out a second time to direct Bogart in the classic 1950 noir, "In a Lonely Place” (also starring Grahame). After directing 1952’s "The Lusty Men", Ray left RKO and went independent. Shortly after came "Johnny Guitar".
In addition to being a moneymaking hit in the US, “Johnny Guitar” also found critical and box-office success in Europe and made Ray internationally famous, particularly with the filmmakers involved in the French New Wave (Jean-Luc Godard famously wrote, "There is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray”). It has since become a cult classic, often regarded as one of cinema’s greatest Westerns. François Truffaut has stated on many occasions: “‘Johnny Guitar’ has more importance in my life than Nicholas Ray’s”. The film has inspired and influenced filmmakers as diverse as Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar, France’s Godard and Truffaut, Italy’s Sergio Leone, and Japan's Shinji Aoyama, among others.
Ray’s most famous and popular film came the following year, the 1955 classic "Rebel Without a Cause" (a film already on this blog where you can read a bit more about him). He continued directing both in Hollywood and Europe, and by the 1960s, was primarily based in Europe. Weakened from years of drinking and drug use, while directing the very troubled 1963 production of "55 Days at Peking", Ray collapsed on the set with heart issues. Having trouble finding directing work, in 1971 he began teaching film at Harpur College in upstate New York, and with his students, returned to directing with 1973's "We Can't Go Home Again". His final film was 1980's "Lightning Over Water", a docu-drama about the last days of his life co-directed by Wim Wenders. Ray's other films include "Bigger Than Life", "On Dangerous Ground", "King of Kings", and “Bitter Victory”. He also appeared in eight films, including 1977's "The American Friend” and 1979's “Hair”.
Ray was married four times (including his marriage to Grahame) and had many affairs, reportedly including those with actresses Marilyn Monroe, Shelley Winters, Joan Crawford, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and screenwriter Gavin Lambert. There are also rumors he slept with all three stars of "Rebel Without a Cause” (James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo). Not sure if that’s true, but it's an interesting and plausible thought. Nicholas Ray died in 1979 at the age of 67.
Heavily influenced by his time with Wright, the compositions in Ray’s films often include architecture, and much of "Johnny Guitar" takes place indoors rather than in the sprawling landscapes that permeate Westerns – another touch that makes “Johnny Guitar” a Western like no other. In addition, the film has more talk and less action than normally found in the genre, and though there are only two women in the film, they drive it, while all the men are in subordinate roles for a change. The title may be "Johnny Guitar", but there’s no doubt this is “Vienna’s” story. This unconventional approach seems to have confused American critics in 1954, as the film received mixed reviews (the New York Times said “Let’s put it down as a fiasco” and The New Yorker called it “The maddest Western you are likely to encounter this year”), and even Ray, and the film’s stars Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden initially hated it. Regardless, it was a big success.
I find it amusing that Joan Crawford hated the film, for in it, she is at her melodramatic best. A larger than life figure on and off screen, the role of the imposing “Vienna” fit her perfectly, and her theatrical approach to acting blends seamlessly into the film's stylized world. As dramatic as Crawford can get, she remains emotionally truthful in a performance filled with passion, anger, sensitivity, and defiance. It’s quite hard to take your eyes off her. When “Vienna” first sees “Johnny”, she stares him down and then rattles off the words “I’ll see him later” like bullets fired from a gun, and adds that extra quality which lets us know there is much more going on here than meets the eye. And she delivers lines such as “Down there I sell whisky and cards. All you can buy up these stairs is a bullet in the head. Now which do you want?”, with such certainty, strength, and glee, they remain forever memorable. It’s a mighty tour de force.
Joan Crawford had been a star since her rise to fame playing jazz-baby flappers in 1920's silent films, and quickly became one of cinema’s top movie stars by the early 1930s, often portraying shopgirls. She had perhaps the longest career as a top movie star of anyone in movies. That’s not to say there weren’t major bumps in her road, but each time her career was in jeopardy, she reinvented herself and came back stronger. After one of those downturns, she starred in “Mildred Pierce”, which won her a Best Actress Oscar and put her back on top. That began her artistic high as an actress, playing mostly variations of determined, tormented, independent, mature, self-sacrificing women in love, to great effect. She sensed another career dip coming before “Johnny Guitar”, and for the first time in over 25 years, left the safety of the studios and went independent.
After making 1952’s "Sudden Fear” (which earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination) followed by the poorly received "Torch Song" in 1953, she was to work with Ray on a film at Paramount Pictures, but there were unresolved issues with the script. Her friend, writer Roy Chanslor had written a novel titled "Johnny Guitar” and adapted it into a screenplay with Crawford in mind. She purchased the rights and brought it to Republic Pictures, and Ray was hired to produce and direct. Not happy with Chanslor’s script, Ray hired screenwriter Philip Yordan to help him rewrite it.
Republic Pictures was one of the top "Poverty Row" studios and they focused on making B movies, primarily Westerns, serials, and action films (Republic helped launch the careers of John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and other Western stars). By the mid-1940's Republic was making higher quality movies, and would occasionally produce bigger-budgeted films like "Johnny Guitar". A top cast and crew were assembled for “Johnny Guitar” with the hope that Crawford’s star power would help the studio rise to the big leagues. The head of Republic instructed Ray to make sure Crawford was happy at all costs. As such, the determined, career-driven Crawford had a major influence over the production.
Crawford threatened to walk out if they didn’t write five additional scenes for her and make “Vienna” the lead of the film. She wanted her role to be as weighty as those given to male actors in Westerns, and not the commonly inferior female roles. She got what she wanted, and as one character says about “Vienna”, “I’ve never seen a woman who was more a man. She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I’m not”. Crawford’s demands, and having the role tailored to her imposing and dramatic nature, meshed idyllically with Ray’s directing style, and I believe it is the combination of these two creative forces that made “Johnny Guitar” so distinctly enthralling. You can read more about the legendary Joan Crawford in three previous posts, "Mildred Pierce", "The Women", and "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?". Just click on the film titles to open those pages.
Sterling Hayden is fantastic as "Johnny Guitar”, the peacemaker and “Vienna’s” romantic interest. He is not your typical Western macho man hero by any means, but overwhelmingly sensitive and vulnerable, with an almost boyish quality. Watch how he observes the initial confrontation between “Vienna”, “Emma”, and the mob while he eats. He brings a marvelous innocence. Hayden is always present and always real. I love the tiny, almost imperceptible giggle he gives “Vienna” when she says “Good morning” after they’ve slept together. It’s details like that which make “Johnny” human. And there’s the smoldering scene when he and “Vienna” talk in the kitchen at night. When “Johnny’s” suppressed heartbreak and bitterness turn into a burst of hope, Hayden demonstrates the high art of acting at its best. One can’t get more moving or more real than him in this scene. It’s no wonder this scene (in which Crawford is also outstanding) has become the most famous in “Johnny Guitar”. You can read more about Sterling Hayden in my post on “Dr. Strangelove”.
Mercedes McCambridge gives another of the film’s glorious performances as vengeful cattle rancher “Emma Small”. Though “Emma” is straightforwardly evil, McCambridge infuses her with so many subtle colors that we can tell there’s a lot more going on inside this crazed woman. When being questioned about “The Dancin’ Kid” by “Vienna”, she beautifully fluctuates between struggling to contain full blown anger, gushing excitement, and squirming from being uncomfortable. And the look in her eyes just after she starts a fire is nothing short of demonic ecstasy. The day McCambrige filmed her first scene, the cast and crew burst into applause after the take. This didn’t go unnoticed by Crawford, who wasn’t in the scene but observed it, and became very jealous and upset. Suddenly, the filming of “Johnny Guitar” became a nightmare for McCambridge.
Crawford had previously dated McCambridge’s then current husband, Fletcher Markle, which was thought to have gotten the two off on the wrong foot. In addition, McCambrige was addicted to alcohol at the time, and Crawford was known to abuse it as well, which didn't help. Crawford reportedly became so enraged and jealous of McCambrige that at one point she threw McCambridge’s costumes (or clothes, according to Crawford) into the street. Hayden later said “There’s not enough money in Hollywood to lure me into making another picture with Crawford. Her treatment of Mercedes was a shameful thing”. And Ernest Borgnine (who plays “Bart”) said in his autobiography “Ernie”, “The real drama was all behind the camera, where Nick Ray was playing both sides against the middle: both Joan and Mercedes were vying for his charms… Joan hated Mercedes with a passion. She called her all kinds of insulting names, and poor Mercedes would fall apart. She’d literally go weak in the knees and collapse, she was that frightened of Joan Crawford”. In her own autobiography, McCambridge called Crawford "a mean, tipsy, powerful, rotten-egg lady”. You can read more about the life and career of Mercedes McCambridge in my post on “Giant”.
One of the stirring questions in “Johnny Guitar” is what is behind “Emma’s” rage. According to “Vienna”, the sexually repressed “Emma” is secretly in love with “The Dancin’ Kid”, who she says “makes her feel like a woman, and she doesn’t like that”. It’s intimated that “Emma” is jealous of “Vienna” because “The Dancin’ Kid” fancies her. But “Emma’s” hatred of “Vienna” is so feverish, one can’t help but wonder what else happened between these two women in the past to make her despise “Vienna” with such intensity.
It's important to keep in mind “Johnny Guitar" was made during the 1950s, at the height of the McCarthy Era (which made homosexuality punishable), and while American movies were still under the rule of the Motion Picture Production Code which forbade any depictions or references to homosexuality of any kind (see my “Red Dust” post). Given “Emma” and “Vienna’s” shared masculinity, their eye contact, the provocatively staged moment when “Vienna” slinks down the stairs in front of “Emma”, and throwaway lines like “Emma” saying that “Vienna” and “The Dancin’ Kid” “throw the same shadow”, or “Vienna” telling “The Dancin’ Kid”, “You don’t know her [“Emma”]. I do”, it is very plausible that the two had a relationship, and that “Emma” is a lesbian and upset she can no longer have the bisexual “Vienna”, and it's shown in a very coded, vague manner to get past censors. But I’ll let you decide and will chalk it up to another of the film’s sublime ambiguities.
Ward Bond plays rich and greedy cattle rancher "John McIvers", who like "Emma", worries that his wealthy and powerful lifestyle will be threatened by the railroad. Bond brings his own weathered gravitas to the role, and is completely believable, presenting “McIvers” as a no-nonsense lawbreaker, but with an ounce of a conscience still remaining. “McIvers” is a man who will rush to judgement and act on his suspicions rather than evidence if it’s to his benefit. Along with “Emma”, it's often thought that this character represents the McCarthy witch-hunting of the day (see my post on “High Noon”), which is a bit creepy since Bond himself was in reality an ultra rightwing, outspoken supporter of witch-hunter Senator Joseph McCarthy. A prolific actor who appeared in many major classics (and is best known for Westerns), Ward Bond may hold the record so far for appearing in the most films on this blog to date. They include "Bringing Up Baby", "It Happened One Night", "Gone with the Wind", "The Maltese Falcon”, "The Searchers", and "It's a Wonderful Life", and in my post on the latter, you can read more about his life and career.
Another actor who appears in multiple films already on this blog is Ernest Borgnine, who plays “Bart Lonergan”, one of “The Dancin’ Kid’s” gang. No character is clear cut in “Johnny Guitar”, except perhaps “Bart”, who is a completely villainous brute. But actors bring their own qualities to a role, and Borgnine’s smile, easygoing nature and the way he astutely listens and reacts to his fellow actors make “Bart” incredibly interesting and three dimensional. Watch how natural he is in the scene when he makes “Johnny” drink at the bar, or when he and “The Dancin’ Kid” and his gang talk about “Vienna” and going to New York. And when “Pete” says, “We haven’t any gold. We hardly got enough silver to plug the holes in ‘Bart’s’ teeth”, Borgnine’s simple reaction alone is proof of his immense talent. This film was early in Borgnine’s career when, because of his looks, he was constantly being cast as villains. This is the fourth film on this blog that features Ernest Borgnine, and you can read more about his life and career in my previous posts on "The Poseidon Adventure", "Marty", and "From Here to Eternity". Be sure to check them out.
You’ve probably heard the quote by famous acting teacher Konstantin Stanislavski which goes “There are no small roles, only small actors”. If one ever doubted that to be true, look no further than John Carradine in "Johnny Guitar” as “Old Tom”, “Vienna’s” devoted employee, janitor, and cook. His screen time in the film is very minimal, and “Tom” is mostly seen in the background with only a handful of shots that show his face. Even "Tom" himself says: “Nobody notices me. I’m part of the furniture”. Yet Carradine has a grand presence, and in a very brief role, manages to create one of the film’s most moving scenes. It’s a tribute to the overwhelming talent of this actor who appeared in well over 300 films and TV shows, and is enough to make any actor realize they can impact people and create an entire character by doing very little. You can read more about the life and career of John Carradine in my post on “Stagecoach”.
I must point out the incredibly haunting title song with music by Victor Young and lyrics by Peggy Lee, which is heard in bits throughout the film and sung by Miss Lee at the film’s end. It is bittersweet with a Spanish flair, and stays with one long after the film ends.
A last mention of the beautiful cinematography by Harry Stradling. Filmed in TruColor (Republic’s less expensive answer to Technicolor), he lights the film in a way that showcases Ray’s vibrant colors while creating spaces filled with atmosphere, such as “Vienna’s” lonely saloon, the mythical river to the waterfall, the blazing dust storm, and the smoldering kitchen. His visual elegance is a big part of why “Johnny Guitar” is known for its striking look. Stradling photographed many classic, including three already on this blog: "A Face in the Crowd”; "Funny Girl”; and "A Streetcar Named Desire", the last of which is where you can read more about his life and career.
We’ve gotten so used to seeing and expecting films to show us life as we know it, and have forgotten how enjoyably cinema can transport us to places we can only experience on screen. So take a break from reality and dive into a dramatic and passion filled world with this week’s exciting classic. Some may see it as camp and others as profoundly psychological, but however one views it, this film is certain to be highly entertaining. Enjoy the sensationally unique “Johnny Guitar”!
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