Friday, November 4, 2011

Johnny Guitar (1954) - Nicholas Ray

Two women vie for dominance on the frontier. Vienna (Joan Crawford) is a sharp businesswoman who has built a gambling house and saloon in anticipation of the railroad coming. Townsfolk and cattlemen, led by a jealous rival, Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), want her gone from the territory. When a gang of outlaws hold up a stagecoach and kill Emma's brother, Emma and a posse come to Vienna's place looking for the Dancin' Kid, who they target as the culprit, and who may have once shared Vienna's bed.

Given the rest of his canon, it might seem strange that director Nicholas Ray would make a Western. Best known for noirs like They Live by Night, In a Lonely Place, On Dangerous Ground, and urban dramas like Rebel Without a Cause, Ray seemed out of his element here. Maybe that's why Johnny Guitar is such an unusual film, one over which few people seem ambivalent. For some it's a classic, for others it's so far removed from the traditional Western form it's a mess, riddled with over-the-top performances and cringe-worthy dialog. I suspect it may be one of those films that takes a while to warm up to, requiring more than one viewing to form a solid opinion. For me, something about it is dreamlike and mesmerising, as if formed one night in the director's sleep, and the movie is Ray's attempt to translate the murky story into a very stylized film.

We are introduced to Vienna in one of the first scenes as Emma and a group of men come to threaten her. Crawford appears at the top of the stairs, all in black except for a bluish string tie and flaming red lipstick. A gun belt is slung at her waist. She is not frightened, saying "Down there I sell whiskey and cards. All you can buy up these stairs is a bullet in the head. Now which do you want?"

Joan Crawford as Vienna.
It's not positively clear what prompts Emma to so fiercely hate Vienna. Vienna suggests she wants the Kid for herself (though some critics of the film like to promote the silly idea she lusts after Vienna). Judging by how she later reacts when the Kid dances with her, Vienna is likely right, but Emma also considers Vienna a threat to her own financial interests in town. In any case, this unconventional Western pits two strong-willed women against one another instead of the usual male protagonists. Emma has a strange hold over the men in the posse, who defer too easily her lead. She either wields considerable financial power in the community, or is just too troublesome to oppose. Hell-bent on running Vienna out of town, she calls her a "railroad tramp," and warns that the railroad means squatters, farmers, thousands of new people from the east, and ranchers who will fence in the open range. McCambridge is a hard ball of mean energy, taking the character to a maniacal pitch. She vows to kill Vienna, and you know the two will eventually clash with deadly results. For the moment, Vienna stands them down.

Ray has made both women similar in appearance in certain scenes, with short black hair and that dark red lipstick. Perhaps he is implying that the characters represent the dual personality in all of us, good and evil.

Sterling Hayden is Johnny Logan, now going by the name of Johnny Guitar, trying to break with a violent past. Vienna once loved him but he ran out of her life five years earlier, afraid to settle down. She tells him her love for him is now just ashes. Though a woman scorned who still bears scars, she's invited Johnny back to help her build a new town. No one quite knows what to make of him. Why would a gunfighter of repute hang up his guns for a musical instrument? 

The Dancin' Kid (Steve Brodie) arrives with his gang (including Ernest Borgnine), charging the atmosphere even more. Johnny makes a dramatic appearance, catching a shot glass before it rolls off the bar. He diffuses the tension when he plays a lively tune and the Kid grabs Emma to dance. If any scene defines the strangeness of Johnny Guitar, it's this one. The tension has built steadily; we expect an eruption, possibly with gun play. Instead, a group of supposedly tough cowboys stand about glaring at one another while the biggest man strums his guitar and the supposedly most dangerous man waltzes. A weird exchange takes place between Johnny and the Kid as they size each other up.

Kid: I didn't get your name stranger.
Johnny: Guitar. Johnny Guitar.
Kid: You call that a name?
Johnny: Care to try and change it?

The Dancin' Kid struts his stuff with Emma.

The posse gives Vienna and the Kid an ultimatum--leave town within 48 hours. They and the Kid soon, leaving Vienna alone with Johnny. It's soon evident that they still love one another, despite the following melodramatic exchange:

Johnny: How many men have you forgotten?
Vienna: As many women as you've remembered.
Johnny: Don't go away.
Vienna: I haven't moved.
Johnny: Tell me something nice.
Vienna: Sure, what do you want to hear?
Johnny: Lie to me. Tell me all these years you've waited. Tell me.
Vienna: [without feeling] All those years I've waited.
Johnny: Tell me you'd a-died if I hadn't come back.
Vienna: [without feeling] I woulda died if you hadn't come back.
Johnny: Tell me you still love me like I love you.
Vienna: [without feeling] I still love you like you love me.
Johnny: [bitterly] Thanks. Thanks a lot.

Johnny Guitar and Vienna.

The best action sequence comes when the posse returns a second time to Vienna's, this after the Dancin' Kid and his gang have robbed the bank. Vienna happened to be there at the time and is guilty by association. She's is wearing white now, calmly playing the piano. Convinced she's working with the Kid, they arrest her and take her out to hang. Emma seizes the opportunity to shoot down a chandelier, starting a blaze which consumes the saloon in a fiery conflagration.

The film, awash in vivid, almost garish colors, reflects Ray's attempt to infuse the film with passion. The visual boldness is one of its most memorable features.  In this scene the color is fantastic, the bright orange flames engulfing the building in the background, contrasting with McCambridge standing out front. Her gleeful reaction as she admires her work is wonderful fun to watch. The character is pure evil, thinking she's finally got the best of Vienna. Reportedly, in real life the two actresses felt contempt for one another, so it's easy to believe that McCambridge incorporated such feelings into her terrific performance.  

The Wrath of Emma Smalls.

The posse, propelled into action by Emma, goes so far as to drop a noose around Vienna's neck. But the men have no stomach for killing a woman and they finally resist Emma's rabid pleas, forcing her own hand. Johnny comes to the rescue just in time. Vienna leads them to the Kid's hideout, with the posse close on their heels. The dramatic, inevitable shootout follows with Vienna facing off with her nemeses, Emma.

Crawford in one of her many primary color costumes.

The end finds Johnny and Vienna holding each other in their arms as Peggy Lee's haunting rendition of the theme song plays over the curtain. Lee wrote the lyrics.

Play the guitar, play it again, my Johnny
Maybe you're cold, but you're so warm inside
I was always a fool for my Johnny
For the one they call Johnny Guitar

Play it again, Johnny Guitar

Whether you go, whether you stay, I love you
What if you're cruel, you can be kind I know
There was never a man like my Johnny
Like the one they call Johnny Guitar

Frequent Western supporting players Ward Bond, Borgnine, Royal Dana, John Carradine, Paul Fix and Frank Ferguson add color to the cast. Victor Young scored the film. The cinematography was handled by Harry Stradling, a 14-time Oscar nominee and 2-time winner. Among his most successful films are Streetcar Named Desire and My Fair Lady.

Johnny: There's only two things in this world that a 'real man' needs: a cup of coffee and a good smoke.


  1. Lovely comments on a favourite film. This was actually the first time I ever saw, aged 8 - I must have been taken by my parents. What a vivid introduction to cinema; I was mesmerised by the two women, the woman in white about to be hanged and the other woman shooting down the lamp and setting the casino on fire. It was as vivid as a comic. I never knew what the film was until years later seeing it on television and it all came back. So it is a key movie for me, I was soon seeing other westerns and dramas of the era, and set up for a lifetime of cinemagoing!

  2. Michael, your phrase "vivid as a comic," is perfect. Thanks.