Tag Archives: westerns

Link Dump: #93

Aww, it’s Bette Davis with a kitty! And now some long-overdue links!

Some very vaginal search terms lately! For example, “charging vagina images” and “god+told+me+to+show+my+pussy” and of course, “young pussy very weary.”

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Seein’ Me

You’ll be seein’ me. You’ll be seein’ me. Every time you bed down for the night, you’ll look back into the darkness and wonder if I’m there, and some night I will be. You’ll be seein’ me.

This is terrifying. This is a man embittered by betrayal who’s turning himself into a weapon of vengeance. This is Jimmy Stewart in Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River (1952) with a bloody lip and hellfire blazing in his eyes. He’s spent the whole film thus far repressing his killer instincts, defending a wagon train of ranchers and farmers in order to refashion himself as a good man. But to paraphrase Robin Wood, the repressed will always return. The second he’s double-crossed by a former ally—played with a demonic grin by Arthur Kennedy—his old, violent self rises up like a werewolf against the full moon.

Certainly the film provides warning signs. Stewart and Kennedy first meet up just before a Shoshone attack, where (as usual) the Native Americans are manifested through bird calls and arrows. The new friends quickly slay the attackers, strengthening their white solidarity but tantalizing the audience with a glint of danger: both men are still handy with weapons, too handy. Afterward, Kennedy decides to pan for gold in California, and Stewart gives him a farewell that doubles as foreshadowing: “I’ll be seein’ ya!”

They do see each other again, teaming up later to shepherd supplies from Portland back to the near-starving settlers. But a recent gold rush tightens around their necks like a noose: greedy prospectors are everywhere, alternately bribing and threatening to get their hands on some food. Stewart and Kennedy enlist a few ruffians, then refuse to pay them until they reach the settlement. One protests: “The law won’t let you get away with this!” Stewart’s face curls into a wry half-smile as he retorts, “What law?” So when a Kennedy-led mutiny abandons him on the mountainside, it’s no surprise that he stands there, framed starkly against the Technicolor sky, and transforms into an avatar of revenge.

And after that blood-curdling “You’ll be seein’ me” monologue, he disappears. For nine whole minutes out of Bend of the River’s last twenty, its star and hero is nowhere to be seen. Instead he lurks off-screen, occasionally dispatching stray members of Kennedy’s posse or firing into their camp, rapidly becoming an invisible agent of fear. A guerrilla, a ghost, a myth. He returns for the climax, yeah, and he gets the girl, even convincing her father that bad men can fundamentally change. But we know better. He might settle down with a home and family, but that same old bloodlust will always be lurking just beneath the surface.

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2011: It Was a Very Good Year

Back in May, I saw my first 2011 movie: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. I was pleasantly floored. Seven months later, it’s become the consensus Movie Of The Year. But in the meantime, I’ve caught up with a few dozen other new releases, some of which smacked me even harder. It’s been a rich, ripe year for movies. Here’s a highlight reel of my favorite bits and pieces…

Scenes

  • The opening heist in Drive. I love the full movie, but it peaks early with this thrilling set-piece that doesn’t waste a shot or second. The sound design alone is as meticulous as any I’ve heard this year, balancing layers of aural information while keeping the viewer on edge. I can’t imagine a better way to kick off a crime thriller.
  • The dueling Michael Caine impressions in The Trip. It’s just two performers (Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon) showing off, fighting to out-funny and out-ego one another. As such, it’s both an ideal comic showcase and the film’s midlife crisis narrative boiled down its essence.
  • The insult competition between Annie (Kristen Wiig) and a bitchy teenager in Bridesmaids. It’s an exercise in pure, improvised cruelty as Wiig and Mia Frampton, daughter of Peter, trade verbal daggers. (“You look like an old mop” might be my favorite.) Wiig isn’t afraid to get dirty or self-deprecating, and in this scene she’s at her funniest/lowest, losing her job with the checkmate line “You’re a little cunt.”
  • The performance of “The Show” in Moneyball. Kerris Dorsey and Brad Pitt sit in a music store. Dorsey, talented but a little shy, starts strumming a guitar and singing. It’s an understated scene of father/daughter bonding, one that studiously avoids cliché while setting the film on course to its emotional climax.
  • The climax of Attack the Block. Moses (John Boyega) finally gets his “hero” moment as he runs down a hall: sword in hand, firecracker in mouth, with gorilla-wolf motherfuckers snapping at his heels, and all in slow-motion. Add Basement Jaxx’s riveting soundtrack, and you’ve got an adrenaline-infused scene that plays like the best kind of side-scrolling video game.

Performances

  • Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia, for blending vulnerability, eroticism, and despair in her reaction to the end of the world;
  • Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for being so silently perceptive he might’ve had X-ray vision, a bastion of maturity in a nest of childish spies;
  • Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin for turning her face into a portrait of motherhood-as-PTSD;
  • Brendan Gleeson in The Guard for cutting loose and flaunting his appetites as a 21st century Falstaff;
  • Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre for her ultra-Victorian restraint and her ability to match Michael Fassbender’s heights of passion;
  • Ben Kingsley in Hugo for concealing a father of cinema and inveterate showman beneath a mask of grumpiness;
  • Monica del Carmen in Leap Year for treating extreme sexuality as of a piece with the quotidian, lonely stretches of life;
  • Corey Stoll in Midnight in Paris for bringing energy and comedy to his take on a literary icon;
  • and Pollyanna McIntosh in The Woman for being feral, fascinating, and terrifying.

And now, my top five movies of the year…

#5: Martha Marcy May Marlene, directed by Sean Durkin

Every frame of Durkin’s debut feature made my skin crawl. A threat was palpable even in its most innocuous moments, and I’m not merely talking about the threat of physical violence. The danger in MMMM is much scarier than that in a typical horror film: Patrick’s cult threads its evil dogmas through the title character’s brain, leaving her with severe psychic hemorrhaging. She’s cleft into two times and lives, and it’s to Elizabeth Olsen’s credit that she plays both halves—the quivering bundle of fear and the would-be “teacher and leader”—within the same role, sometimes within the same gesture.

Olsen’s unease is supplemented by Jody Lee Lipes’ zoom-happy camera, applying the ambient paranoia of ’70s thrillers to the lakes and forests of the northeast. The whole film is colored by Martha’s anxiety; even a tree, branches shuddering in the wind as she flees the cult, is imbued with sinister intent. A story of atmospheric horror and systematized violence, Martha Marcy May Marlene itself has crawled into my mind and taken up residence. My one major misgiving lies in the treatment of Martha’s sister and brother-in-law. They feel too schematically bourgeois for this otherwise loose, suggestive film. Nonetheless, I’m dying to see what Durkin tries next.

#4: Meek’s Cutoff, directed by Kelly Reichardt

Steeped in the tedium of frontier history, streaked with political subtext, Reichardt’s revisionist western muffles its narrative progress. Its story expands through gestures, accidents, and mistakes. The film’s survival-oriented, focusing on the compromises and sacrifices necessary for human life in the wilderness. For the seven settlers led by guide Stephen Meek, every decision is a life-or-death decision: can a captive Native American lead them to water? Does salvation lie just over a hillside? Either they act together and make the right choice, or they die.

These colossal stakes drench the story in tension. Even as Reichardt dwells on textures and period details—the toil of reloading a rifle; the clash between dusty pink dresses and the parched landscape—the threat of endless wandering hangs over the pioneers’ heads. The actors wear it well, exchanging dazed, exhausted looks. And from this tired band, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) emerges as the only real hero, an understated, proto-feminist badass. With its arid compositions, Meek’s Cutoff turns western myth into tragicomic reality.

#3: Certified Copy, directed by Abbas Kiarostami

This discursive duet poses a riddle: “Are they or aren’t they?” But Certified Copy’s delights go far beyond its core mystery. That question is an intellectual spark, lighting up a dozen other points of inquiry: the film dives into art history, relationships, academia, and more through the ruminations of author James Miller and the nameless French woman leading him around Tuscany. Despite being one long conversation, the film never lacks for visual dynamism; Kiarostami tends toward beautiful static shots, but his camera often orbits the couple in graceful, deliberate movements.

And as if to complement Certified Copy’s technical and natural allure, Juliette Binoche gives the performance of the year. Binoche is always an exceptional actress, silently adding wrinkles to her every role, but this is something new. She’s sweet but tough, giving the impression that every delicate word she speaks is forged from a lifetime of experience. Her sparring partner, opera singer William Shimell, is a decent enough actor, but Binoche draws my eyes even when she’s off-screen. Midway through the film, she has a sudden breakdown in a café, and it’s unlike anything else I saw this year. You can see the shape of the movie totally changing as a single tear runs down her face.

#2: Weekend, directed by Andrew Haigh

Russell (Tom Cullen) is relaxed, receding, sometimes melancholy. Glen (Chris New) is iconoclastic and impulsive. They’re the two poles of this bittersweet, naturalistic gay romance, and two of the year’s most unforgettable characters. Weekend hits all the right notes; it has all the awkwardness and tentative desire of an embryonic relationship, all the embarrassment and incidental comedy of sex. It astonishes me with its range of moods, as it shifts from funny banter to heartbreaking revelations in seconds, without ever seeming forced or jerky.

It’s such a humanistic film, too, so sympathetic to its couple’s pains as gay men in a homophobic world and as lovers whose relationship is squashed by circumstance before it has a chance to blossom. It has no “Notting Hill moment,” as Glen says derisively. Instead, its climax is a quiet little conversation about coming out as they lie in bed. It’s just a handful of lines, but it still tears me apart. Cullen and New have plenty of sexual chemistry, but beyond that, they have a powerful rapport. They work as an onscreen couple. 2012s romantic comedies will have an incredibly hard time topping them.

#1: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

I’ve written about Uncle Boonmee here and at 366 Weird Movies. My point remains the same: it’s a spellbinding experience, an invitation to another world, and a collection of weird folk tales all rolled into one feature film. As I sat watching it for the first time in the Walker Art Center’s movie theater, I was utterly hooked. All it took was that opening scene, where a bovine pack animal shuffles through a velvety forest. Apichatpong handles his vast themes (death, morality, the afterlife) with the humor and imagination they deserve, and it makes for one hell of an entertaining movie.

Touring through past and future, caves and glades, human and animal worlds, Uncle Boonmee is dense with narrative tangles and metaphysical conceits. But it doesn’t gloat about its ambitions. It wears them lightly in a spirit of friendliness and warmth. I’ve never seen a ghost story or an art film like it. Open-ended, curious, and unusual at every turn, Uncle Boonmee is exactly what I want out of a movie.

[I have yet to see A Dangerous MethodHouse of PleasuresLe Quattro VolteMargaretPoetryA SeparationShame, or Take Shelter.]

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One Against All

By Andreas

Two very different movies, a western and a film noir, blossomed from the paranoia of the early 1950s with identical scenarios. In each film, a lone lawman sees an Absolute Evil that he’s morally compelled to fight. (In one, that Evil is paroled gunfighter Frank Miller; in the other, it’s mob boss Mike Lagana.) In each, that lawman’s world is permeated by cowardice and corruption, and his would-be allies refuse to help fight the Evil. And in each, he takes a stand, risking his life for the town that deserted him.

These similarities between High Noon (1952) and The Big Heat (1953) are anything but coincidental. Rather, they’re open-ended, metaphorical reactions to America’s Cold War crisis of conscience. Bombarded with threats from without and within—China! The Rosenbergs! The Soviets! The Blacklist!—the nation spent the early ’50s twisting itself into knots. Naturally, Hollywood followed suit, albeit in a genre-colored fashion that sufficiently distanced its stories from present-day political realities.

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The Foxy Grey Fox

By Andreas

Howard Hawks mystifies me. A former pilot and avid outdoorsman, Hollywood’s “Grey Fox” was tight-lipped in interviews and is popularly viewed as the poster child for Hollywood classicism. By and large, his movies are old-fashioned genre fare about teams of professionals in tough situations (a synopsis that covers 4/5 of the movies on this list). Whereas some filmmakers give me an impression of flamboyance or eccentricity, Hawks feels vanilla and taciturn—the strong silent type.

But this vague sketch is totally insufficient when it comes to Hawks’s films. I’d rank his masterpieces alongside those of his modernist collaborators, like Hemingway and Faulkner; they’re sublime works of art made by an utter genius. Clearly, more was going on beneath the surface than Hawks chose to give away. This extends to the realm of sexuality: on the surface, Hawks was just a thrice-married heterosexual filmmaker who specialized in action/adventure movies. But buried in his work were strange, compelling sexual undercurrents. I’ve already discussed the queerness of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, so here are a few other Hawks films with surprisingly sexy moments…

Throughout Hawks’s gangster classic Scarface (1932), anti-hero Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) is pretty preoccupied with the sexual comings and goings of his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak). He slaps her around for daring to dance with other men, and is consistently abusive and controlling. Yet in the film’s last scene, as he’s holed up in his steel-shuttered bunker and surrounded on all sides by cops, Cesca is there for him. When he asks why she didn’t kill him (he did murder the man she loved, after all), she explains that it’s “because you’re me, and I’m you.” This scene blazes with incestuous tension, and when Cesca dies moments later, it does not play as a brother/sister death scene. “I’m no good without you,” says Tony as his sister breathes her last. It’s pretty obvious what he means.

As Sugarpuss O’Shea in Ball of Fire (1941), co-written by Billy Wilder, Barbara Stanwyck is a firecracker of compressed libido. She’s a stripper on the lam who stumbles upon a coven of academics working on an encyclopedia, and decides to tap into their latent desires… especially those of the lanky, sexually unaware Bertrand Potts (Gary Cooper). He’s an easy mark, as Sugarpuss introduces him to the wonders of “yum yum,” a slang term that becomes a running joke. You get one guess about who gives the film its title. (1941 also saw Stanwyck seducing the professorial Henry Fonda in Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve, which is a better film and contains a hotter seduction.)

Hawks had the rare privilege of working with Hollywood’s hottest couple twice, first in To Have and Have Not (1944) and then in his noir masterpiece The Big Sleep (1946). Both films contain scenes of explosive sexual tension: the former has the infamous “You know how to whistle, don’t you?” exchange; The Big Sleep has the brilliant horse-racing conversation. Bogey and Bacall throw double entendres back and forth, metaphorically mixing sex and detective work with talk of being “rated” and “who’s in the saddle.” When Bogey says “I don’t know how far you can go,” they’re not discussing horses anymore. It’s a remarkably crude-but-subtle way to undermine the Production Code in the name of sexy, sexy art.

I think this image from Hawks’s Red River (1948) gets the erotic point across pretty well. Matt (the very gay Montgomery Clift) and his potential rival Cherry (John Ireland) have just met and, knowing one another by reputation, decide to test their “sharpshooting skills.” To do so, they trade “guns” and evaluate how well each “gun” handles. Maybe, just maybe, you can detect some subtext. As usual, Hawks’s use of sexual metaphors is unobtrusive and undeniable, saying exactly what he wants it to say with minimum fuss and maximum erotic power.

Although credit for directing The Thing from Another World (1951) technically goes to Hawks’s frequent editor Christian Nyby, everyone and their grandmother agrees that it’s covered in Hawks’s auteur earmarks. So I’m including it for its bizarre but fun example of fairly explicit bondage. Kenneth Tobey, playing a tough military man stationed in the Arctic, expresses a romantic interest in the only woman at the base, played by Margaret Sheridan. He offers to let her tie him up, if she has a drink with him, and she takes him up on it. The hand-tying always strikes me out of nowhere: so much of The Thing feels conventionally 1950s, and then it’s like, “Bondage!” Oh, Howard Hawks, you perverted devil.

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Lust, Duels, and Matadors

Pedro Almodóvar’s Matador (1986) is a film about erotic obsession. It’s about the lusts that lead men and women to fuck, and to murder. But since it’s Almodóvar, you know it’s done with a fairly light touch – a self-consciousness about just how campy and ridiculous this whole affair really is – even as he spreads on the color and sensuality like so much molasses. Matador is a well-crafted Hitchcockian thriller about Ángel, played by a young Antonio Banderas, who is neurotically consumed with mother-instilled Catholic guilt. One night, he attempts to rape his neighbor Eva, who is also the girlfriend of Diego, a retired bullfighter who’s been giving Ángel lessons.

After confessing it to the police, he also assumes the guilt for four unsolved murders – of which two were committed by Diego, and the other two by Ángel’s lawyer María. This creates a roundelay of desire and suspicion worthy of the Master of Suspense, as the two killers smell blood and draw gradually nearer to one another. And just like the finest tales in Hitchcock’s repertoire, it’s all totally preposterous – which couldn’t matter less, because this is Almodóvar, so it’s not about logic. It’s about María’s sinful allure and Diego’s unquenchable thirsts; it’s about melodrama and madness and orgasms at the brink of death.

Diego and María’s dance of death leads to a climax (pun intended) that’s about as extravagantly, disturbingly erotic as anything this side of In the Realm of the Senses (1976). The rest of the characters burst in and gaze, shocked, at the remnants of their two-person orgy. They may have died, but they get the romance and tradition of bullfighting, a pair of beautifully entangled corpses, and the satisfaction of finally fulfilling their passions. It’s excessive, it’s perverse, but that’s Almodóvar for you. His film’s endings are often hard to categorize, a mix of happy and sad, troubling and comforting. Matador follows the same enigmatic, convention-defying pattern in its own weirdly sexy way.

Hitchcock isn’t Matador‘s only inspiration. Almodóvar is a highly allusive filmmaker, and midway into Matador, María sneaks into a movie theater, with Diego in hot pursuit. The theater, naturally, is playing the steamy climax of David O. Selznick and King Vidor’s feverishly epic western Duel in the Sun (1946). Just like Matador, Duel in the Sun ends with its two obsessive, doomed lovers – Pearl (Selznick paramour Jennifer Jones) and Lewt (Gregory Peck) orgiastically destroying one another. It’s a bloody end for a saga of family, betrayal, and industrialization – but one that’s just as ridiculous as any scene in Matador, even if the film never admits it.

Duel in the Sun begins with the hanging of Pearl’s father (Herbert Marshall) for the murder of his wife and her lover. She’s sent off to live with distant relatives – the McCanles family, who live on a vast ranch called Spanish Bit. There’s the ornery, paraplegic Senator (Lionel Barrymore), his more sympathetic wife (Lillian Gish), and their two sons, the lusty Lewt and the more civilized Jesse (Joseph Cotten). As you can tell, this is a giant, expensive, all-star affair – even Walter Huston steps in for a tiny role as an itinerant, fire-and-brimstone preacher who lectures Pearl about her sinful nature: “Under that heathen blanket, there’s a full-blossomed woman built by the devil to drive men crazy!”

By men, of course, he means Lewt, who has a sinful nature of his own. This is an unusual character for Peck, who would go on to fight anti-Semitism shortly thereafter in Elia Kazan’s message movie Gentleman’s Agreement (1947); here, he’s a gun-toting rapist fixated on owning Pearl (and her sexuality) to the extent that he kills her kind-hearted fiancé in cold blood. However, the Senator’s racism makes Lewt refuse to marry her; Pearl, you see, is part-Native American. (As a result, the very white Jones’s skin is crudely slathered in brown makeup, just like Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil.) Through all of her trials, Jesse tries to help her, but he gives up once he believes that she’s actually interested in Lewt. So Pearl grows more and more attached to Lewt… and draws nearer to her own death.

This is not a racially or sexually progressive movie, at all. Its protagonist is essentially martyred from the start just because of her skin color and her mother’s affair, and she’s blamed for every bit of persecution she receives – whether by the Senator, the preacher, or the brothers she alternately loves. It’s none too surprising, either, since Duel in the Sun was basically intended as Selznick’s follow-up to his super-popular but similarly regressive magnum opus Gone with the Wind (1939). While it doesn’t match the earlier film’s romantic heights or historical scope (despite having three times as many uncredited co-directors), it still has plenty to recommend it – especially if you’re a junkie for torrid melodrama like Almodóvar clearly is.

Duel in the Sun‘s delights are more cultish and weird than its southern predecessor, especially as the film approaches its sun-burnt, homicidal finale, which borders on the surreal. The film’s oneiric qualities are aided by the dazzling Technicolor cinematography, shot by the team of Lee Garmes, Ray Rennahan, and Harold Rosson, which make the desert look distinctly unreal. Regardless of Selznick’s intentions, Duel in the Sun is definitely closer to Johnny Guitar than How the West Was Won – and it’s to the film’s credit. Jones isn’t exactly an acting dynamo, but thankfully she’s surrounded by a cast of legends, and Peck makes one hell of a sleazy, unapologetic villain.

Finally, Duel in the Sun is unabashedly erotic, as Jones’s heaving bosom is just as vital to the film’s success as any given line of dialogue. Much of the movie, especially the conflict between Jesse and the Senator, seems geared to make you think this is a movie about nationhood, the death of the west, and the taming of the land. But that’s an afterthought in relation to the film’s real and true subject matter, which is the kinky, violent, death-tinged relationship between Lewt and Pearl. As much as I wish that Jesse could’ve been the main character (ohh, Joseph Cotten…), it just wasn’t to be.

No, Duel in the Sun‘s heart belongs with Lewt, his phallic guns, and his frequent, contentious trysts with Pearl. Their behavior together makes Rhett and Scarlett look like a model of chastity – as well as a model of respectful consent and female self-determination. Gender equity and healthy sexuality are tossed out the window, and the same goes for any conception of subtlety or restraint – Selznick really wanted to paint the landscape with his character’s outsize emotions. So you can see why Pedro Almodóvar (or Martin Scorsese, for that matter) loves this movie. It’s ambitious, audacious, opulent, unhesitatingly melodramatic, and it charts the inevitable path from erotic obsession to stylized death.

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While Johnny Guitar Gently Weeps

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.

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