Film Review #175: Johnny Guitar
Director: Nicholas Ray
Cast: Joan Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge, Sterling Hayden
Think about any of the get-ups that Madonna has employed in her concert tours over the years and slowly it dawns on you – watching Joan Crawford, as the gun-slinging, old Arizona casino owner known only as Vienna, whom we first meet clad entirely in black except for her gun-belt, or later watch nearly lynched in a long white dress while her establishment blazes in lurid Tru-Color flames against the night sky – somewhere in her past the Material Girl had to have caught Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), a film the wildly admiring Truffaut called an “hallucinatory Western.”
Or think how fine Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were on the current political race during that recent Saturday Night Live and suddenly the rivalry between Crawford’s Vienna and the mob-inciting cattle-owner Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) – who spends most of the story in black funeral garb herself – acquires a delicious contemporary twist. In its excess, Johnny Guitar does walk a certain razor’s edge that always threatens to topple into camp. And it did just that in its 2004 incarnation as a stage musical that is still enjoying regional production around the country, in fact only last month just south of here as the final summer offering at Cortland Repertory Theater.
But Ray and his actual screen-writer Ben Maddow seem instead to have had in mind just how surreal the national landscape had become by the early 50s. Maddow was one of the Hollywood writers accused of Communist ties during Joe McCarthy’s hearings in the House Un-American Activities Committee – hence, the film’s credits list Philip Yordan as screenwriter, since Maddow was black-listed from working. That national battle over democratic values, patriotism and the use of witch-hunts permeates the film.
Nicholas Ray released Johnny Guitar one year and a couple movies before his vastly better known film starring James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause. The basic story isn’t unusual. It’s the old frontier and the railroad’s coming through. The film opens with the title character (Sterling Hayden) riding toward Vienna’s casino through the mountains, where the railroad construction crew is blasting with dynamite, literally changing the landscape. He watches a stage-coach robbery on the valley floor from above, in which the town banker – Emma’s brother – dies, fueling her vengeance. Vienna’s long-lost love, the once-notorious but reformed gunslinger who packs a guitar, Johnny has employed the time-honored American habit of reinvented identity and so gets himself worked over initially at Vienna’s place, principally by the bad apple Bart Lonergan (a terrifically sleazy Ernest Borgnine), one of the Dancin’ Kid’s gang.
Another self-reinvented American traveler and rival for Vienna’s affection, the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) hails from New York City – enough in itself to kindle Emma Small’s hatred – and in the course of the story decides to move on to California. Vienna herself intends to host the new railroad depot on her land and build a new town. Unnervingly keen to lynch them both from the get-go, Emma blames Vienna and the Dancin’ Kid for her brother’s death. Worse, both represent forces of social change and political power shifts that she can’t abide. Eventually it’s the two women who will have a showdown - more surrogates for mid-5os national vertigo than feminist figures - during which formerly blustering men will wonder to each other if it’s finally safe to slip away from a fight they didn’t really want.
Thus Emma declares to the somewhat reluctant posse, “I’ve been right about that woman. The marshal thinks he has to have legal cause. McIver [a fellow cattle baron] thinks he can do it with talk, and the rest of you can’t make up your minds! What are you waiting for? You heard her. They’re trying to run the railroad through here, with thousands of people from the east. Farmers! Dirt farmers! They’ll push us out!”
Though Johnny Guitar might seem constructed on the Let ‘er Rip theory of filmmaking, Ray and Maddow present us with scenes like this which embody quintessentially American debates. They also frequently pause the action so characters may argue – literally sometimes in mid-stream, since the way to the Dancin’ Kid’s hide-out lies through a water-fall – the morality of competing courses of conduct. The most serious and consequential of these occurs regarding whether the Kid’s gang should leave behind its youngest member – the wounded Turkey (Ben Cooper), who actually can’t keep up with the big boys and has fallen from his horse – to save themselves from the pursuing posse. Their decision, strong-armed by Bart Lonergan, leads to Turkey’s capture, his forced confession and false accusation of Vienna, and – despite Emma’s empty promises of leniency – his quick lynching.
If you think about other Westerns – 3:10 to Yuma, for example (either version will do), and the many treatments of Jesse James’ still-captivating demise – the youngest gang member is usually the figure whose disappointed, demanding hero-worship leads to his betrayal of the leader, an object lesson on the costs of celebrity and slavish devotion. This time – Vienna tells Turkey at one point that he’s been “cheated” of his youth – his leaders fail him.
After all, thinking itself is the target this time around.
This review appeared in the 9/18/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Find Johnny Guitar readily & cheaply on-line in a variety of VHS & DVD formats, with at least three DVD editions since 2001.