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By John Chard May 6, 2017
You're nothing but a railroad tramp who's not fit to live amongst decent people.
Johnny Guitar is out of Republic Pictures and is directed by Nicholas Ray. It's written by Phillip Yordan, who adapts from a novel written by Roy Chanslor, and it stars Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, Ward Bond, Ernest Borgnine & Scott Brady. Victor Young scores the music, with the theme tune sung by Peggy Lee, and Harry Stradling Senior photographs in Trucolor.
On the outskirts of an Arizona cattle town is a saloon run by the strong willed Vienna (Crawford). It's not a busy place, and the users of it tend to be more of the rough kind, notably The Dancing Kid (Brady) and his gang. At the request of Vienna, her former lover Johnny Guitar (Hayden) arrives for his employment as the musical entertainment. But he walks into a war, a war between Vienna and the townsfolk led by the vicious and vindictive Emma Small (McCambridge).
Johnny Guitar has been called many things. From the deep thinkers who like to call it a feminist statement, an anti McCarthyism allegory and a piece smouldering with sexual repressions and yearnings - to the detractors calling it rubbish, campy and acted so badly that it actually smells of bacon cooking in the kitchen. What is immediately evident about it is that once viewed it's unlikely to be forgotten - which ever side of the fence you sit. It was a troubled production that saw both Hayden & McCambridge declare dislike for Crawford, with Crawford reciprocating the dislike for McCambridge by insisting that her character of Vienna be given more meat from which to further dominate the film. Fans of the film will forever be grateful for Crawford's jealousy, for she got her way, this was after all a vehicle for her, if she had walked, as was threatened, it would have died a death. The shift in emphasis, with the subversion of gender roles, is what makes Johnny Guitar the most intriguing and unusual film that it is.
Upon release in America the film was very coolly received, but out in Europe, notably France, the New Wave directors were very impressed and the film has gained a cult status over the years. So much so that nowadays it gets name checked by such luminaries like Martin Scorsese, who eagerly provides an introduction on the DVD for it. What is it that the fans see that makes it such a favourite? Moving away from the fabulous narrative, where two women are the main characters in a perceived mans world; where the psychoanalytic drama seeps from every frame, it's a technical hotpot as Ray moulds his twisted sexual dynamics together. Trucolor has never looked this nice before, nor ever been so apt. it's almost surreal, certainly lurid, and it neatly brings to the fore the Frank Lloyd Wright like sets. While the Sedona photography by Stradling, particularly the red and browns of the landscape, is simply beautiful. Cover it all with a hauntingly evocative score from Young and it's one of Republic's most pleasing Western productions.
The cast came in for some grief from the critics, with the main charge being of hamming it up. Not so say I, well certainly not to the detriment of the feverish story. Crawford acquits herself well, black eyes, blood red lips and masculine jaw, Crawford nails the task of butch land owner aching for love from within. As her nemesis, McCambridge steals the movie, Crawford was right to feel jealous, such is the intensity that McCambridge puts into Emma. A vicious psychotic harpy, sexually frustrated, watch the orgasmic glee she shows during one particularly vengeful scene. A brilliant and frightening performance. Hayden does what he does best, slinks around and plays it almost close to parody, but never once does he come close to being disparaging, his charisma is massive and he acts it like a coiled spring waiting to unfurl. While Bond (puritanical), Brady (edgy) and Borgnine (feral), the three B's, are very efficient in important supporting roles. Special mention for John Carradine, who plays a background character that, thanks to the prolific actor, manages to get noticed and pangs the heart during the finale. A fine cast that plays it right in this cobweb of Freudian splinters.
Save for some tacky back screen work and the odd incredulous character choice - it's observed that Vienna's white dress will draw attraction to them on the lam then she selects a bright red shirt! - this is near genius. To my mind it's one of the true greats of the Western genre, so count me in as a paid up member for the cult of Johnny Guitar. 9/10