Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) is technically a western, but it distorts many elements of the genre until they’re barely recognizable. It’s a very strange, fascinating, and beautiful film. Basically, it’s about the conflict between two unyielding women, Vienna (Joan Crawford) and Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge). Between them are a number of men, from wealthy landowner McIvers (Ward Bond), to an outlaw named the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), to the title gunslinger, played by the easygoing, laconic Sterling Hayden. But make no mistake about it: this movie belongs to these women. And it’s not big enough for the two of them.
The film begins with Johnny riding into town, guitar slung across his back. First he encounters some men from the railroad dynamiting mountains to make for tracks; next he witnesses a hold-up in the valley that will motivate much of the ensuing action. Johnny is established as an observer figure, reacting to the events around him, and in this way, he’s cast somewhat in the mold of Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, or the anti-heroes of the yet-to-be-made Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars – entering into a volatile situation and carefully engineering a profitable outcome. However, Johnny substitutes wry commentary and absurdist inner peace for Mifune or Eastwood’s self-interest. He’s anything but the proactive, take-charge western lawman or renegade of John Wayne or Gary Cooper. Hayden’s Johnny Guitar, né Logan, is a whole new kind of protagonist.
Once Johnny arrives in town, he finds the woman who’s hired him: Vienna, who’s a whole new kind of love interest. She runs a gambling and liquor joint on the edge of town, employing a group of men who live to serve her, intimidated by the authority she wields from atop a flight of stairs. “I’ve never seen a woman who was more a man,” notes one of them, initiating the film’s flagrant gender-bending, which is encoded in both the dialogue and mise-en-scène. The staircase and upper room (Vienna’s private quarters) are quickly established as architectural representations of her power, similar to how Ray would use a staircase as a manifestation of psychic discontent in Rebel Without a Cause (1956). And Crawford’s acting is a mesmerizing blend of butchiness and neurotic femininity, as if her paranoid housewife in Sudden Fear (1952) had become an entrepreneur in the Wild West. You can really see the unusual charisma that led her to be such a star, yet at the same time a cult figure.
Yet somehow, Crawford is outdone by Mercedes McCambridge, who brings all her demon-eyed intensity to bear on the role of Emma. No reservoir of emotional imbalance is left untapped by her performance as she reigns over the town’s men folk with a tight jaw and an iron fist. During her first confrontation with Vienna in the saloon, she stands at the front of a row of men, each of them indistinguishable in their drab coats and hats while she wears a blazing green that matches the felt of Vienna’s pool tables. She is perpetually the ringleader: the men may try to assert their power – like the marshal’s legal authority or McIvers financial might – but in the end, they’re just figureheads. It’s Emma’s psychotic ferocity, her mix of lust, jealousy, greed, and hatred, that really drives the mob’s actions and the course of the town’s future.
McCambridge, it’s worth noting, was a massively talented and tragically underused actress. She won an Oscar for her first film performance (having earlier been a radio actress) as Sadie, an opportunistic politico in All the King’s Men (1949); other films enlivened by her appearances, however brief, include Giant (1956), Touch of Evil (1958 – “I wanna watch.”), and of course The Exorcist (1973), where she supplied the raspy, eternally angry voice of the demon possessing Linda Blair. Who else could’ve screamed “Your mother sucks cocks in hell, Karras!” with such gusto?
And voicing Pazuzu isn’t too far removed from playing Emma, who almost burns through the screen with her raw hatred. The film’s simplistic psychoanalyzing – that she wants the Dancin’ Kid dead because he “makes her feel like a woman” – is satisfactory on the surface, but it can hardly account for the Ahab-like devotion of her vendetta against Vienna. (This point leads easily into a queer reading of the film, which is reasonable; in fact, you’d be hard pressed to make a totally non-queer reading of it.)
I think the best demonstration of this, and possibly the best moment in the entire film, takes place just after the last showdown in Vienna’s saloon; as Vienna is brought away on a horse alongside Turkey, her gallant young would-be protector, Emma doubles back and re-enters the empty saloon, rifle in hand. She takes aim and fires at the chandelier hanging from the ceiling, which falls, instantly setting the building ablaze. I just love McCambridge’s body language as the fire spreads: she raises her arms as if conducting it, gazing on it with both awe and pride, as if she can’t believe what she’s done and is rapturous about it. By the time she dances out through the swinging doors, pressing her hand to her mouth in disbelief, and turns to face the camera, she looks orgasmic with the thrill of destruction.
I could probably go on for quite some time about McCambridge’s madly, gleefully over-the-top performance, but that wouldn’t leave much space for the rest of the film. Let me simply say that I’ve decided Emma to be one of the most terrifying, yet compelling villains in all of film. Yet thankfully, Johnny Guitar doesn’t single her out as a force of malice in contrast to a pure and righteous set of heroes. Vienna is selfish and unstable, fighting Emma with her sheer, indomitable will power; Johnny is largely unconcerned with the strife around him; and the Dancin’ Kid is desperate and inclined toward poor decisions. And it’s this general lack of virtue amidst the film’s cast of characters that makes its political, moral, and sexual implications even more potent.
Johnny Guitar exudes meanings; they grow like fungus out of each strange, new scene. On my most recent viewing, it wasn’t until I saw Turkey being coerced into naming Vienna as an accomplice that I remembered that, in addition to its radical gender politics, the film also serves as a savage metaphor for HUAC and the Hollywood blacklist. But it’s hardly dated, since it’s relevant to any situation where people would rather sell their comrades out than face death or bankruptcy. It matter-of-factly catalogues human vice and egocentrism as they spur the action, leading to a happy ending that feels like a parody, similar to Johnny and Vienna’s jaded caricature of old lovers reuniting:
Johnny: Tell me you’d a-died if I hadn’t come back.
Vienna: I woulda died if you hadn’t come back.
Johnny: Tell me you still love me like I love you.
Vienna: I still love you like you love me.
Johnny: Thanks. Thanks a lot.
The film’s sour attitudes toward human nature are echoed in its frenzied style, which mirrors the dysfunctional relationships of its characters. Just before it’s burned, for example, Vienna’s saloon looks like a recreation of her interior state, as she sits in a wedding dress playing piano to an empty house while framed against a cavelike wall. Images like these approach surrealism, yet fit right in with the characters’ melodramatic behaviors (it’s no surprise one of Ray’s subsequent films would be entitled Bigger Than Life). This is not a subtle film: this is a film that brandishes its stylistic idiosyncrasies like a whip, from the nonnatural colors – unusual for a western, bright reds, blues, and yellows recur throughout – to the psychological geography of the tunnels underneath Vienna’s saloon and the waterfall guarding the Dancin’ Kid’s mountain hideout. Every erratic filmmaking choice flashes itself in the viewer’s face.
And through a combination of Ray’s directorial genius and the actors’ talents, it all works. It’s different, it’s campy, it’s anything but typical, and it’s a great, innovative film – also, it’s difficult to imagine how Ray was able to make it in 1954. (I can’t say, but I’d guess that making it at the Poverty Row studio Republic helped.) Johnny Guitar has also had a huge influence, with its daring combination of bizarre artsiness and genre filmmaking. It was adored by the French New Wave, especially Godard, and my film professor Carol noted of it, “Much beloved by feminist critics of a certain era, as you might imagine.” Directors who’ve either paid homage or been influenced by it range from Wim Wenders to Jim Jarmusch (both Ray acolytes), from Bertolucci to Scorsese to Almodóvar, and beyond.
So I guess those are my thoughts on Johnny Guitar, which I had to express sooner or later. It’s a pretty audacious film, and I especially love its complex uses of androgyny and gender roles, playing a sexual joke on the entire history of westerns. It’s so improbable, yet manages to be so well-made at every turn, as it realizes the mammoth egos of these two fierce women in the infernos and explosions that streak the Arizona landscape. I’ll mention at the last minute two especially notable members of the supporting cast: John Carradine, who sacrifices his life for unrequited admiration, and Ernest Borgnine, who’s as much of a violent prick as his character Fatso in From Here to Eternity. They’re just two fascinating little details in the giant canvas that is Johnny Guitar.