Johnny Guitar

Director: Nicholas Ray
Screenplay: Philip Yordan (based on the novel by Roy Chanslor)
Stars: Joan Crawford (Vienna), Sterling Hayden (Johnny “Guitar” Logan), Mercedes McCambridge (Emma Small), Scott Brady (Dancin’ Kid), Ward Bond (John McIvers), Ben Cooper (Turkey Ralston), Ernest Borgnine (Bart Lonergan), John Carradine (Old Tom), Royal Dano (Corey), Frank Ferguson (Marshal Williams), Paul Fix (Eddie), Rhys Williams (Mr. Andrews)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1954
Country: U.S.
Johnny Guitar Olive Films Signature Collection Blu-Ray
Johnny GuitarNear the beginning of Nicholas Ray’s fascinating, offbeat Western Johnny Guitar there is a scene that is so good, so sharply written and performed and instantly memorable, that the rest of the film almost suffers in comparison. The scene, like much of the film, takes place inside Vienna’s, an imposing two-story saloon and casino on the outskirts of a small town somewhere in the western territory. We have already witnessed the arrival of the titular Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), a jovial, but mysterious man who makes his way to Vienna’s through a howling dust storm claiming that he is there to see the proprietress (Joan Crawford), who upon seeing him sternly tells the bartender, “I’ll see him later.”

There is clearly history there, but more importantly, Vienna is clearly in charge. The Western is traditionally a man’s world, with women intruding, at best, as symbols of civility in need of protection; Crawford’s Vienna, on the other hand, stands with the best of them, leading one of her employers to remark, “Never seen a woman who was more a man. She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I’m not” (curiously, this dialogue is delivered directly to the audience, with only the last part delivered in a reverse shot that reveals the speaker is talking to another character on-screen and not us in the audience).

Then come the townsfolk, who in most Westerns are the embodiment of good and decency, but here is a rampaging mob led by Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), a wealthy rancher whose brother has just been killed in a stagecoach robbery (which Johnny happened to have witnessed from atop a bluff). Emma is intent on laying the blame with a local man known as the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) and his gang, although she is just as determined to connect it to Vienna and paint her as guilty, too. The exact reasons for Emma’s hatred of Vienna are unclear at first, although it is soon revealed that she is romantically obsessed with the Kid and determined to run Vienna out of town not only because she has a history with him, but because the location of her saloon is adjacent to the new railroad being built, which means that it will be the center of a new, more prosperous town. (Some have also suggested a lesbian subtext, in which case Emma is sexually attracted to Vienna but can’t bring herself to admit it, thus she must destroy the object of her unacknowledged “filthy” desire.) Thus, Emma’s bile is both sexual and economic, and it is so venomous that is nearly eats away at the screen.

Vienna, dressed in the typically masculine black shirt and pants of a gunslinger, holds herself on the “high ground,” meaning the second-floor balcony and the stairway leading up to it, challenging Emma, corrupt local businessman John McIvers (Ward Bond), and the town marshal (Frank Ferguson) to come get her. And then in saunters the Dancin’ Kid and his gang (which include Ben Cooper’s young, naïve Turkey, Royal Dano’s level-headed Corey, and Ernest Borgnine’s temperamental Bart), thus creating a three-way stand-off that is pitched at such an intense emotional register (it is scored to the constantly howling wind outside) that it seems like all-out bloodshed is the only possible climax. Of course, it doesn’t end in violence, at least not the physical kind, as this early sequence is about establishing conflict, of which there is a copious amount and from all directions (not bullets fly, but shots are definitely fired).

Although a Western in terms of time and place and character, Johnny Guitar is much better understood as a melodrama in which the traditionally masculine standoff between two men is reinscribed through two female characters, one of whom is trying to escape her past and establish herself as an independent businesswoman beholden to no one and the other of whom is a sexually repressed hysteric who must destroy anything that threatens her sense of self. Writing about the film in Cahiers du cinéma in 1955, French critic and soon-to-be pioneering New Wave director François Truffaut didn’t go so far as to couch it in those generic terms, although he did argue that it was not “really a Western” or an “intellectual Western,” but rather a “Western that is dream-like, magical, unreal to a degree, delirious.” The Freudianism is so thick, one could cut it with the proverbial knife.

The rest of the film, which was written by Philip Yordan (who or may not have been fronting for blacklisted screenwriter Ben Maddow) from a pulp paperback by prolific novelist and screenwriter Roy Chanslor, plays out this three-way conflict, as Emma and McIvers try to run Vienna and the Dancin’ Kid out of town while Vienna rekindles her romance with Johnny Guitar, much to the Dancin’ Kid’s chagrin. Vienna’s resolve to stay only deepens, while the Dancin’ Kid, doubly threatened by Vienna’s shift of attention to Johnny, with whom she had a relationship five years earlier, decides to become the very thing he is constantly being accused of being by robbing the town’s bank. He and his gang do the deed at the worst possible time, as Vienna is there withdrawing her money, thus making her appear to be an accessory.

It all plays into Emma’s hands, who leads the townspeople like her own personal army; in the latter part of the film, they are all dressed in black because they were attending her brother’s funeral, but it’s impossible not to see it as a purposefully perverse twist on the standard white hat/black hat color dichotomy of good and evil in the Western. Ray, who was making his first color film, uses the Trucolor palette (Republic Pictures’ lower cost alternative to Technicolor) to its fullest extent, although even more noticeable is his use of architecture. A student of Frank Lloyd Wright’s, Ray was particularly attuned to how space, both interior and exterior, can affect our feelings, and Vienna’s saloon, with its very Wright-esque modern, clean lines juxtaposed with a back wall composed of the rocky red bluff into which the structure is built, plays a prominent role in shaping and sharpening her character.

For her part, Vienna plays numerous roles as indicated by her wardrobe, first embodying the masculine position of the gunslinger before softening and becoming more feminine in a red nightgown and later a flowing white dress before again returning to more masculine attire. Crawford, who had won an Oscar for Mildred Pierce (1945), is indelible in the role, her now caricatured face a perfectly iconic representation of solidarity and sheer force of will. When she pulls a gun, her authority is so complete that she doesn’t even come across as a woman in male drag; she owns it on her own terms. The film may take its title from Johnny, whom Sterling Hayden plays with amiable charm, but it belongs heart and soul to Vienna.

Johnny Guitar Signature Collection Blu-Ray

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Introduction by Martin Scorsese
  • Audio commentary by historian and critic Geoff Andrew
  • Johnny Guitar: A Western Like No Other” featurette
  • “Is Johnny Guitara Feminist Western?: Questioning the Canon” featurette
  • “Tell Us She Was One of You: The Blacklist History of Johnny Guitar” featurette
  • “Free Republic: The Story of Herb Yates and Republic studios” featurette
  • “My Friend, the American Friend” featurette
  • Johnny Guitar: The First Existential Western” essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum
  • Theatrical trailer
  • DistributorOlive Films
    Release DateSeptember 20, 2016

    Johnny Guitar is beautifully presented on Olive Films’ new Blu-ray in a new 4K restoration, which replaces their earlier 2012 Blu-ray. The image, which is framed at 1.66:1 (the earlier disc had an open-matte 1.35:1 aspect ratio), is very clean, with almost no signs of wear and tear. While detail is generally good, the image has a slightly soft quality, especially in the long shots, that is likely indicative of the original elements (remember that Trucolor was a three-strip color process that relies on precise lining up of all three strips, which sometimes results in a bit of softness even when done well). The color palette is appropriately heavy and saturated, although not quite so much as a true Technicolor film would look. Reds and yellows pop with particular vibrancy, while the interiors of Vienna’s saloon maintain an earthier look, with a preponderance of blacks and browns and brick reds. The scenes that take place at night manage black levels and shadow detail well, and the entire transfer benefits from grain presence that reminds us of its origins on celluloid. The original monaural soundtrack is presented in a clean DTS-HD Master Audio mix that is reflective of the film’s original sound. While there are some fights and guns fired, this is primarily a dialogue-driven drama, all of which is clear and well balanced with the environmental sounds and occasional use of music.
    As one of the first releases in their new “Signature Series” line, Olive Films demonstrates that they are serious about assembling a strong array of supplements to go with some of their best titles. For Johnny Guitar, they start with an introduction by Martin Scorsese that appears to have been recorded in the late 1980s or early 1990s, probably to go along with a television airing (this is the only supplement that appeared on their 2012 Blu-ray). They have also enlisted historian and critic Geoff Andrew, author of The Films of Nicholas Ray (1991), to record an audio commentary, which adds a rich layer of background information and critical assessment that makes the film that much more engaging. The rest of the supplementary material consists of new featurettes produced specifically for this release. The first, “Johnny Guitar: A Western Like No Other” (17 min.), features interviews with critics Miriam Bale, Kent Jones, Joe McElhaney and B. Ruby Rich, who discuss what makes the film so unique. “Is Johnny Guitara Feminist Western?: Questioning the Canon” (14 min.) features the same group of critics discussing the film’s gender and sexual issues and whether it can be seriously considered a “feminist film” (spoiler alert: not everyone agrees). “Tell Us She Was One of You: The Blacklist History of Johnny Guitar” (10 min.) features interviews with historian Larry Ceplair (The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930–60) and blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein (The Front, The House on Carroll Street) talking about the blacklist and how blacklisted writers continued to work behind fronts, while in “Free Republic: The Story of Herb Yates and Republic studios” (6 min.) archivist Marc Wanamaker gives us the fascinating backstory of the film’s production company. Finally, “My Friend, the American Friend” (11 min.) is a biographical piece with actor Tom Farrell, who studied under Ray at Harpur College of SUNY Binghamton and collaborated on a student film there that Ray directed called We Can’t Go Home Again (1973). The disc also features an original theatrical trailer and “Johnny Guitar: The First Existential Western,” an original essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum that is also printed in an insert booklet.

    Copyright ©2016 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Olive Films / Paramount Pictures

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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