Johnny Guitar gets usual second rating when we think of the greatest of American contributions to the screen, the Western. And perhaps so, for it pales compared to The Searchers and other of the classics we all know and love. Johnny Guitar is perhaps an equally strong picture and perhaps to some degree it has faded a bit simply because of the lack of those iconic stars we associate with the Western.
Here we have Joan Crawford, most definitely not known for her prowess on a horse so to speak. Cast with her are Sterling Hayden and Mercedes McCambridge, neither of whom were or are household names. Smaller still are Ward Bond and Ernest Borgnine (yet to reach his fame here in 1954). Yet don’t let what could be termed a lesser cast or the studio deter you. In fact, this may be one of Republic’s best pictures.
There are two factors which make Johnny Guitar such a good and interesting – if not great- film. First and foremost is the dynamic and strong roles given to women, rare if not unique for the genre. Being a property Joan Crawford owned, it isn’t suprising that she stars, but she plays second fiddle to no one. Surprisingly the next strongest character is the role of Emma Small, played by Mercedes McCambridge. The men are purely in support. The decisions, plot, action – everything is dictated by the women in this picture.
The second great factor is the veiled (at least slightly) tension in the picture. There is a bit more here than the surface plot would suggest. As others would surely agree, this is not a Western with a little plot, but rather a complex story which just happens to occur in the west.
Joan Crawford is Vienna, who has built a saloon on the outskirts of town and more or less in the middle of nowhere. Emma and other key locals own most of the surrounding land and are envious of Vienna’s parcel as well. Vienna picked the location purely on well placed knowledge that a railhead will pass right by her location.
Although not said per se, my take was that Vienna had garnered the funds for the saloon through plying her feminine wiles so to speak. In any case the entire town is out to push her out. A stage holdup (by a gang headed by Ernest Borgnine) provides the excuse to escalate the situation. Roughly at the same time Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) appears, presumably to play guitar and entertain Vienna’s guests.
Unbeknownst to all, Johnny is really ace gunslinger Johnny Logan and a former love of Vienna’s. Thank goodness his true name isn’t Johnny Guitar as there are more than enough crazy lame names scattered about anyway. (There is a guy named “Turkey” in this. Really. As in gobble gobble.) That said, it is that same quirkiness which lends the film some of its cult charm.
As the tension builds the posse comes for poor Joan, who flees her burning saloon in a brilliantly white dress – only to change into a flamingly bright red shirt late. Discretion isn’t her strong suit. Another element of flair.
For myself, I don’t see what most see in this film when they mention homosexual overtones (or undertones I guess). If I squint really hard perhaps. That said, it is definitely more than a bit of gender reversal in tone – especially at the beginning- though by the end Joan Crawford is swooning a bit for Mr. Hayden again.
Well directed by Nicholas Ray although still not among his finest, the result is still crisp and fast moving. And again, quirky.
Strangely Johnny Guitar isn’t available on DVD (at least in the US) or even Netflix as of this writing, but given its stature perhaps this is due to the perceived undertones mentioned above? In any case this is well worth your time in checking out. Just don’t let Joan Crawford’s heavy makeup or bushy eyebrows turn you away.