Directed by Nicholas Ray
On the outskirts of town, the hard-nosed Vienna owns a saloon frequented by the undesirables of the region, including Dancin' Kid and his gang. Another patron of Vienna's establishment is Johnny Guitar, a former gunslinger and her lover. When a heist is pulled in town that results in a man's death, Emma Small, Vienna's rival, rallies the townsfolk to take revenge on Vienna's saloon – even without proof of her wrongdoing.
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★★★★★ review by ScreeningNotes on Letterboxd
"Never seen a woman more like a man. She looks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I'm not."
Really hard to imagine this coming out in 1954. Director Nicholas Ray had already made In a Lonely Place with Humphrey Bogart, so it's not like this is some no-budget small-scale production where he can do whatever he wants, and yet Joan Crawford as Vienna is really unimaginable in a way that still feels progressive even today. She owns and operates her own saloon, so she has economic and cultural power, and she successfully persuades those around her to take her side, so she has social and psychological power, and there's never any point where she's marginalized.
She's the ultimate embodiment of personal agency within the film and there's never any point where she's made out to be weird or abnormal or somehow Other. Not only does she structurally occupy a position traditionally used as a signifier of masculinity (she's a gunslinger and a landowner), she also makes characters around her confront their own gender identities (see above quote). She's just a badass lady running around in a world traditionally defined by its rocky landscapes as a battleground for male dominance within a patriarchal society.
This undermining or redefining of the hypermasculine archetypes of the West can also be tied back to repressed sexuality, of both the characters (both men and women are afraid of being emasculated, and Emma's drive has an unspoken sexual undercurrent) as well as the culture of America at the time the film was made (1954 was right in the center of McCarthyism, when homosexuals were accused of treason). However, this reading has already been done better by Sally Jane Black than I could do.
What I'm particularly interested in is the reversal of a more specific trend I've been noticing in the westerns I've been watching*. Usually, the cowboy comes to town; here, the town comes to the cowboy. Vienna has her saloon, and a mob of townsfolk enter it and demands that she leave. This works as a representation of the state of exception, the unspoken exclusion from society that the rest of the community's inclusion is founded upon, although here with an emphasis on the exclusion rather than the resulting inclusion. Rather than performing a foundational act of violence which must be then excluded, Vienna is excluded from the very beginning and never overcomes this social alienation.
Civilization is spreading its borders, intruding itself into the lives of others and removing those it deems in conflict with its (supposedly) peaceful ideals. Here, the spread of civilization is called out as a witch hunt more savage than the frontier it's replacing; pre-established community is shown to be the intruder rather than the one intruded by a feared outsider. The world turns inside out; the inside (the supposedly benevolent society) becomes the outside (the intrusive, violent mob), and the outlaw (the community member included by virtue of her exclusion, included only as an outsider) becomes the final agent of the law, the unjust avenue for justice.
★★★★★ review by Neil Bahadur on Letterboxd
For some inane reason I feel like this movie should not be as great as it consistently ends up being! There is relatively little to glean here upon repeat viewings, but more than any other film I think does this one have the ability to stun you in the same way as the first time one watches it. Godard's famous 'And the cinema is Nicholas Ray," was applied to a later film, the greatest film about male pride, but I feel like that dictum describes this film much better - this movie is true mashup cinema, a combination of so many different and disparate elements digested and then spewed out that it ends up the most baroque and romantic western ever made. For me, the most obvious influence on Ray around this time (before Rebel, where he finally found himself) is pre-'34 Von Sternberg, and this movie almost feels like what JVS might have done in a Western around that time (remember, pre '34, so the die-hard romantic, not the suicidal maniac! But then that's the same thing, isn't it? Anyways..)
There is so much thrown in and mishmashed here - the politics, but though McCarthyism was probably an inspiration for lynch mad citizens, this gives us a very interesting demonstration of the mechanics of a group mentality - essentially it boils down to emotionalism versus rationality - and what's most interesting is that real love is found with the latter! It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out the dangers of a group of people who all react with their emotions first and think after, but it's actually quite chilling how far this goes, such as bribing a person with their life to lie, only to reengage on their promise immediately after. There are little mediations on violence and pride - Turkey only shows his gun twice in the film: first he pulls it out and exclaims "I'm a man!"...the next time we see him with gun revealed he is collapsing on the ground covered with blood. Coupled with his considerable youth compared to the rest of his ilk, this is one of so many threads thrown into this movie, a quick thought of the kind of indoctrination males are privy too, again when one is ruled by emotions alone. For any other film I feel like these mere two instances aren't enough...but it's just perfect.
There is also the surreal, unusual relationship between Crawford and McCambridge...a constant battle of will and psychology. I understand the claims made about McCambridge's character's repressed sexuality, however this is maybe a bit unclear to me...what (at the moment) is more interesting to me are McCambridge & Bond's characterizations, wealthy landowners who want to remove Crawford so to profit on her land. The lynch mob is headed by the most powerful people in the town! In fact virtually every relationship in this film has some kind of nuance or dynamic to it which opens up the movie considerably - it touches on virtually everything without fully going into it...but I think this is a virtue rather than a flaw, as though every kind of relationship is glanced at through sensory reaction - incredibly cinematic! Hayden and Brady's relationship is also quite interesting, of course being that they are two men in love with the same woman. It's easy to forget that for a fair portion there is actually a love triangle going on throughout the film - Crawford slowly falling back in love with Hayden, while Hayden & Brady constantly picking to find clues regarding the other's relationship with Crawford. As you all know of course it's Hayden that ends up with Crawford, but in the movie's later portions there is some wonderful segments of passive-aggressiveness from Brady, followed by quick displays of pride from each man, each trying to one-up the other almost theatrically. But Crawford offsets all of this, immediately revealing that these theatrical displays of male pride often amount to little more than a childish game.
But even with all that, none of this would really elevate this movie to a masterpiece had it not been for the key relationship: that of course of Crawford and Hayden. And for me not even so until the later sections! The emotive early sections play, again, like early Sternberg - each lover trying to rediscover faith. Crawford has made herself, she wants love too but is able to exist without it - Hayden is the opposite, the despairing dreamer: "Laugh, Vienna! And be happy, it's your wedding day!" That Crawford loves Hayden prior to this is indisputable, but she is also rational: he is a violent man & if this violence cannot be curbed then she would rather live without him. So Hayden curbs his worst tendencies for love. But it's the moments where they run in danger together, after the burning of saloon where this movie becomes very moving to me. Just two people who love each other running away from the world - they bump into grass and chuckle even though their lives are in danger. They run through waterfalls - "Only you and me, that's real." And this is what makes the movie, even with everything else, one of the most beautiful films ever made.
And that doesn't even get into this movies truly psychedelic colour palette...
★★★★½ review by Luke Kane on Letterboxd
Johnny Guitar was grinning back at me the whole time I was watching it.
It's a fantasy western about a saloon owner, Vienna (Joan Crawford), who refuses to be driven away by greedy townsfolk. I hasten to add fantasy because director Nicholas Ray deliberately avoids realism at every turn. He wants his characters to be symbols and the situations to be metaphors. The 'western' in this western feels like a put-up job. Like if you put your fingers up to the screen all of the pistols, rimmed hats and saloon doors would topple over, leaving only the bare symbols in all their crudeness.
None of the characters have actual conversations. Every scene is a confrontation with a final consequence that is absolute. If an authentic moment had been included I would've been bewildered. I'd worry that the filmmakers had only accidentally made a great film.
The gunfire and spilled drinks mount up in Vienna's saloon as the story unfolds, but it remains an immaculate, dreamy space throughout, furnished with peculiar, colourful anachronisms and phoney details. The decor is flush with so many ostentatious, cheerful accents that it has to be considered a sham. It's the idealised picture of a saloon where movie cowboys come to drink whiskey and brawl.
Vibrant red paint is used to denote a gunshot wound, and cowboys that are hit (as Francois Truffaut put it) 'circle and die like ballerinas'. The film is filled with dozens of men and only two women - and that's one too many. Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge are towering adversarial figures with an unqualified influence over the town's men, who divide into camps. The men are sheepish and hardly know what to do when a women isn't around to give them an instruction. At one point both camps pause during a violent shootout to watch their queens duel on the veranda of a ranch-house which is (naturally) propped up on a dirt mountain that substitutes for a stage.
The outlaws are the most principled, morally-outraged characters. There are four of them, and each reflects a sensibility more than a person. One of them is neatly summarised in a single line: 'You don't drink, you don't smoke, you're mean to horses.'
The townsfolk and lawmen, led by McCambridge, are the most contemptible and corrupt. In the last half of the film the director dresses them all up in black-and-white so we don't confuse them for individuals. On their horses (which are half-brown and half-black) they swoop across the screen like a murder of crows mid-flight. They are the visual embodiment of unification and pack mentality, hell-bent on administering their corrupt brand of justice.
Whenever I read anything about Johnny Guitar, I always hear it described as either 'camp' or 'subversive' or both. It's certainly subversive in the way it teases gender politics and uses the conventions of old westerns to exaggerate its themes, but I wouldn't call it camp, except in certain aspects of its production design. It's vibrantly colourful, theatrical, but not at all naive. There's too many subliminal ideas and double-edged dialogue for it to be regarded simply as camp, which is usually innocent and apolitical.
It's definitely cheeky. In one scene, after an argument with a former lover whose returned after five years, Crawford looks down over a balcony ledge and says to him, 'Vienna's is closed', before sauntering off to her bedroom. Literally she's referring to her saloon. In every other respect she's referring to an altogether different box.
The casting of Crawford and McCambridge as the titans locked in a winner-takes-all battle was very shrewd. Both actresses - who had an infamously hostile relationship on set - are from the old-Hollywood school of acting where every line is enunciated and every expression overdrawn. Retrospectively these are their finest performances. Their heightened style is right at home in their hyper-real environment, and the pitch feels like a conscious artistic choice rather than an outmoded form of screen acting.
I was stunned at how alive the images are, how grand the scope. The Technicolor pictures burst exuberantly off the screen. You could watch this movie on your iPhone and it would still feel cinematic. Ray uses extreme angles and panoramic tracking shots with a verve that measures up to his exaggerated themes. It's a movie that is always trying to seduce you.
★★★★★ review by nrh on Letterboxd
Struck by three fairly bold soundtrack choices that underpin the long and very strange opening movements of this film - the woozily romantic score by Victor Young, the howling winds of the storm outside, and incessant whir of the roulette wheel ("I like to hear it spin"); within the opening moments of the film, Sterling Hayden's hulking golem of repressed violence and sexual confusion has already traveled through a valley of exploding hills and murder, and the film manages to maintain this nightmarish emotional register for its entire run time.
A much less vibrant print than the last time I saw this (interestingly paired with Li Han Hsiang's The Love Eterne), but the more muted palette brought out how much the film works on the level of shapes and staging - the way the antagonists (as such) play out the entire last half of the film in mourning clothes, the way Crawford stages her demise at the piano, in proscenium.
The repeated mentioned of their missing "five years" works its way into your brain at a certain point; like Monteiro discovered this film plays in and on memory in a way almost nothing else can.
★★★★½ review by Andrew Willis on Letterboxd
I have a new favorite saying that I use when telling someone about watching a movie. They usually ask what’s it about. I now like to say, “What happens, or what is it about”?
What happens in JOHNNY GUITAR is a female settler in the old west sets up a saloon in a small village in preparation for the railroad. The towns people, led by a psychotic female rancher, don’t like it and are afraid of progress. The saloon owner and her customers, led be The Dancing Kid, and the titular Johnny Guitar fight against the townspeople to hold on to what they see as their own.
What JOHNNY GUITAR is about is the sexual tension and repression of the female characters. Joan Crawford is the salon owner, and she is almost exclusively shot from low angles making her a dominant figure contrasted against all of the men surrounding her. She is dressed in tight black leather, until she changes into an angelic flowing white dress. Mercedes McCambridge is the rancher who is maniacally obsessed with Crawford. She claims not to be romantically interested in The Dancing Kid, but is jealous that The Kid swoons for Crawford. That is because really she wants Crawford for herself. There is a scene under a round lantern candelabra (a ring of fire) with Emma leading a lynch mob that is a very powerful image.
Johnny Guitar is a former lover of Crawford. In the time since they parted ways, he was not ready to marry, she has whored herself around in order to get the money to build the saloon. He remained celibate. Of course the movie can’t come right out and say this, but it is heavily implied. Like most western heroes, Johnny Guitar’s gun is a metaphor for his penis. He put it away when he left (probably impotent) and now he is back around her and he is as Crawford says, “gun crazy”. Basically he can’t wait to get her in the sack, although she seems to have no problem waiting.
The movie is as subversive as they come and a great example of how genre films can say so much more than their plot description allows for.
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