Westerns are nearly as old as the cinema itself. The first western—Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery—arrived in 1903, about a decade after the invention of moving pictures. It was a watershed moment in the cinema’s history. The film may look like a simple good guys vs. bad guys shoot ‘em up today, but its famous ending probably frightened audiences as much as the Lumiere Brothers’ Arrival of a Train, which according to legend sent people running out of the theater, fearing the train would actually hit them. In the final shot of Porter’s film, one of the bandits draws his gun, points it at the audience and shoots.
Director: Nicholas Ray
Writer: Phillip Yordan, Roy Chanslor (novel)
Cinematographers: Harry Stradling
Editors: Richard L. Van Enger
Music: Victor Young
Cast: Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, Ward Bond, Ernest Borgnine, John Carradine, Frank Ferguson
Genre: Drama / Western
Premiere: May 26, 1954
US Distributor: Paramount Pictures
For the next seventy plus years, the shootings increased and westerns thrived as a genre. The very appeal of the genre may lie in the fact that the films can be viewed as a microcosm of the country, ripe for mythologizing (the westerns of John Ford) or demythologizing (the revisionist hippie westerns of the Vietnam era). “Loomings,” the first chapter of Moby Dick, may shed some additional light on the appeal of the west. Ishmael talks at length about people’s love of water and its freeing qualities. There was also something freeing about the west; the frontier after all was a place to make a new start, a place where freedom was so vast it gave way to lawlessness.
Sadly westerns have all but vanished from existence. In recent years, only a handful of them have been produced (3:10 to Yuma, True Grit, both of which are remakes, Meek’s Cutoff, There Will Be Blood, & The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford—a film that’s as boring as its title is longwinded). Of all the old Hollywood genres, only the musical is closer to extinction. A western-buff could easily lament this sorry state, if it weren't for the near bottomless trove of westerns that were produced during Hollywood's golden years. For many cinephiles—including Francois Truffaut--Johnny Guitar was and still is a veritable gem at the top of Hollywood’s western treasure trove.
Nicholas Ray’s film was produced by Republic Pictures, a poverty row studio that had previously been home to interesting but minor works by some of Hollywood’s greatest talents: Orson Welles’s Macbeth (his last Hollywood affair until Touch of Evil), Fritz Lang’s House by the River (a period piece thriller), and John Ford’s The Quiet Man (a “Duke” John Wayne vehicle of course). Johnny Guitar is not a minor work, but it would be fair to say it has been overrated in some auteurist circles. However, that was back in the 50s and 60s, when the French and New York Critics were aggrandizing Nicholas Ray because he was an “existential” Hollywood director. Those days are long gone, and now with less popular acclaim, Johnny Guitar still deserves to be celebrated. Like the best of Ray’s pictures, it’s part fatalism, part romanticism; it’s the cinema of outsiders and loners and also the cinema of gunfighting women.
The film has been lauded as a feminist western and rightfully so. A stereotype running throughout the genre is that a man’s gotta be a man. Or, as John Wayne put it, “nobody ever saw a cowboy on the psychiatrist’s couch.” This kind of hyper masculine characterization is so embedded in westerns that it’s ultimately what compelled Howard Hawks to make Rio Bravo. While Ray made a career out of making genre films, he rarely succumbed to their clichés. Often he deviated away from genre traditions so as not to limit himself to stereotypes. With Johnny Guitar he turned the western on its head by casting a no-nonsense gunslinging businesswomen as his central character. At its most basic level, the film is a power struggle between two tenacious women.
The picture stars Joan Crawford as Vienna, the archetypal Ray antihero, a moody loner at odds with her surroundings. On the dusty outskirts of a small town, she’s setup Vienna’s, a den-like gambling saloon. Her only patrons appear to be the Dancing Kid and his gang, until a mysterious stranger strolls in named Johnny. He looks like a gunslinger but wears a guitar on his back instead of a gun on his hip. As it turns out, Vienna has big capitalist dreams of developing the small town, and she’s hired Johnny Guitar ostensibly as her entertainer. Her plans pose a threat to the townspeople, and they’re hell bent on driving her out of town before the construction of a railroad is finished, which will be going right through Vienna’s property, guaranteeing the success of her business plans. All of these plot points are pure MacGuffin, meaningless central objects around which the story orbits. Ray doesn’t seem interested in making a commentary about the expansion and development of the west—as in most of his work, his existential heroes are in a fight with either their own neuroses or society in general, often both. As it happens, the townspeople turn into a monstrous mob led by a conniving loudmouth named Emma. The film is a series of tense showdowns between Emma’s mob and Vienna.
Ray’s picture could be viewed as a thinly veiled social realist western (like Silver Lode, a more explicit western from the same year in which the villain is actually named McCarty). Some critics have interpreted the murderous mob in Guitar as an indictment of McCarthy era witch-hunting. There’s certainly credibility to the argument, but an auteurist critic may be quick to point out that the mob in Johnny Guitar is not new to the cinema of Nicholas Ray. It’s clearly a theme that fascinated Ray. As film scholar Geoff Andrew has pointed out, mobs appear in various forms in Ray’s biblical epic King of Kings, his noir On Dangerous Ground, his teen-melodrama Rebel without a Cause, as well as another Ray western, The True Story of Jesse James. In most of these titles, the mob underscores the distressing isolation of Ray’s antiheroes. His characters are always in a lonely place. And lest anyone forget, the director’s very own existential motto was “I’m a stranger here myself,” which is also a line of dialogue spoken by the eponymous Johnny Guitar. Sterling Hayden’s guitar man is a stand in for Nicholas Ray. As is often the case with auteur directors, Ray’s pictures are deeply personal, even when he’s leapfrogging from the biblical epic to the western. It’s the mark of a true auteur.
One of the many pleasures of watching the film is Crawford’s turn as Vienna; she plays the character in a blaze of heated-up histrionics. At times she looks like a piece of enraged sculpture; at other times she looks bewildered she’s no longer a starlet at MGM. It’s a performance that’s half way to the unclassifiable camp of her turn in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Yet even in her most ridiculous moments she’s mesmeric. In one of the movie’s most lurid scenes, she’s dressed in an immaculate white gown, playing the piano in her desolate saloon when Emma’s mob arrives clad in black funeral attire, determined to pin her for a bank robbery. Both sides exchange their fiery sermons, until the mob finally accosts Vienna with intentions of a hanging. As they drag her out, Emma, now alone in the saloon, raises her gun and shoots down a candle-lit chandelier. The deranged, orgasmic look upon her face as Vienna’s goes up in flames is truly something to behold. It’s the only scary moment in the film. The shrillness of Mercedes McCambridge’s performance as Emma is located somewhere beyond over-the-top, but in its way, her acting style reinforces the mentality of the mob. Besides the histrionics of the female leads, another treat for film-buffs is the all-star cast of veteran character actors: there’s the melancholy John Carradine (father to David, Keith, and Robert), the hotheaded Ernest Borgnine, the gruff Ward Bond, the paternal Frank Ferguson, and the tough naturalism of Sterling Hayden. They’re all faces you’ve seen in other westerns. Effective as these actors are, it is Hayden who is a true breath of fresh air in the picture. He was an adventurer and seaman in life, and so it’s with great ease that he slips into the role of a rugged world-weary cowboy. In one of the film’s opening scenes a bartender at Vienna’s inquires who he is; he replies, “the name is Johnny…Guitar.” He says the line so off-handedly and yet with so much meaning that he reveals a character of almost mythological proportions. But with a name like Johnny Guitar it might be hard not have some kind of mythology, and the film is truly worth seeing for that line reading alone. It’s a shame Hayden and Ray never collaborated again.
For a genre that’s been so kind to movies (and ticket sales) over the years, it’s surprising Hollywood has more or less turned its back on westerns. Thankfully films like Johnny Guitar have been properly restored; it remains a relic from Hollywood’s golden past and is a reminder to return to its archives not just for the gems of Nicholas Ray but for the countless westerns and forgotten masterpieces waiting to be picked up and viewed again.