Thursday Editor’s Pick: Johnny Guitar (1954)

by on August 26, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Johnny Guitar 1954 Joan Crawford Nic Nicholas Ray
Playing Thurs Sept 1 at 7:00*, 9:30 at Chelsea Clearview [Program & Tix]
*7:00 introduction by drag queen Hedda Lettuce

Chelsea Clearview’s Joan Crawford month continues this Thursday with Nicolas Ray’s beautifully, bizarrely baroque western Johnny Guitar. If Alt Screen had a golden rule, it would be: never miss a chance to see Johnny Guitar in all its gobsmacking glory on the big screen. Never.


Nota bene, Clearview discounts their ticket price for Chelsea Classics screenings: you pay just $7.50!


Martin Scorsese introduces “an intense, stylized, unconventional picture full of ambiguities and subtext that render it extremely modern”:


François Truffaut in The Films in My Life:

The cowboys in Johnny Guitar ridiculously call each other “monsieur” in the dubbed French version, which is superior for once to the subtitled version because it lets us see the film’s theatricality better. We already have learned that this Western was shockingly extravagant. Johnny Guitar is a phony Western, but not an “intellectual” one. It is dreamed, a fairy tale, a hallucinatory Western. It was only a step from the dream to Fred, which our Anglo-Sazon colleagues took up when they began talking about “psychoanalytic Westerns.” But the qualities of Ray’s film are something different, not very visible perhaps to those who have never looked through a camera’s viewer.


There are two films in Johnny Guitar: Ray’s recurring theme – the relationships among the two men and two women, the violence and bitterness – and an extravagant catch-all done in Joseph von Sternberg style, a style which is absolutely foreign to Ray’s work, but which in this case is no less interesting. For instance, we watch Joan Crawford, in a white dress, playing the piano in a cavernous saloon, with a candlestick and a pistol beside her. Johnny Guitar is the Beauty and the Beast of Westerns, a Western dream. The cowboys vanish and die with the grace of ballerinas. the bold, violent color (by Trucolor) contributes to the sense of strangeness; the hues are vivid, somethings very beautiful, always unexpected.


J. Hoberman for the Village Voice:

Before there was Jerry Lewis there was Johnny Guitar. Nicholas Ray’s 1954 western—a luridly operatic mix of Freudian sexual pathology and political subtext, featuring Joan Crawford’s grim, glam gunslinger—was dismissed by American reviewers but embraced by Cahiers du Cinémas an auteurist cause célèbre: “Le cinéma c’est Nicholas Ray,” in Jean-Luc Godard’s exuberant formulation. Like all cult films, Johnny Guitar is a pop-cultural magpie’s nest, conflating Casablanca, Sunset Boulevard, and The Ox-Bow Incident—not to mention Jean Cocteau. This blatantly theatrical western immediately confounds the generic imperative with a 40-minute interior scene played by Crawford as though it were Shakespeare. The most dogged of stars (the original Demi Moore), Crawford was making her first western since 1928. She demanded the man’s role, essentially switching parts with nominal hero Sterling Hayden. “Feminism has gone too far,” The New York Herald-Tribune began its review.


The on-screen tension between the actresses was exacerbated by McCambridge’s marriage to Crawford’s ex, and Crawford’s star fits drove her director nuts: “The atrocity Johnny Guitar is finished and released, to dreadful reviews and great financial success,” Ray wrote to a friend. “Nausea was my reward.” Sartre could not have put it better.


A.O. Scott for The New York Times:

Joan Crawford, arms akimbo, stars as the saloon owner and potential empire builder Vienna, and you have to love the movie for that reason alone. Crawford’s requisite contradictory brick-house toughness and runny sentimentality sent a generation of female impersonators scampering to makeup mirrors to outline their mouths with a cruel slash of poppy-red lipstick. And the Trucolor process gives the film colors as hot as a boil, sending feverish shivers of crimson and blue throughout. Even the tan buckskins seem to have a trace of blush. The coarse, transfixing rumble of melodrama and its fixation on self-invention takes a few pages from Ray’s own story. He was a man who cobbled his work together to create a bespoke crispness and yet whose work radiated a grim desperation.


Vienna’s ambitions to use her saloon as a foundation for her own town-building are ruined when several of her friends — including the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) — are railroaded for a robbery they may not have committed. She stands up for them, supported by the mysterious Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden). The unusual dynamism lent to a film of the 1950’s — where the most independent and thoughtful figures are women — juxtaposed against the slavering pack mentality of the men in the elbow of a town where the film is set is just one of the ways that Ray set opposites vibrating.The freakish vulnerability of Ray’s figures, and the overwhelming sense of loneliness — it is as large as the anger that floods the film — make ”Johnny Guitar” a goofy and remarkable film.

Johnny Guitar 1954 Joan Crawford Nic Nicholas Ray


Anthony Lane for the New Yorker:

The viewers who stayed away from Ray’s “Johnny Guitar,” say, didn’t know what they were missing.The French were right to honor the convulsive strangeness of “Johnny Guitar” (1954), the tale of a saloonkeeper (Joan Crawford) fighting, with the aid of an old flame (Sterling Hayden), to survive a lynch mob. Only foreign eyes, perhaps, could widen with suitable amazement, and without a tremolo of sniggers, at the movie’s lunging gestures and superheated tones. When our heroine is advised to change out of her milk-white dress to evade pursuit, she sensibly slips into a shirt of blinding red, suggesting that she has also found time to don a radioactive bra. What Godard and his colleagues could not register—and what, as moralists of the pure image, they would dismiss as irrelevant—were the qualities that an American audience would bring to bear. Good sense, the narrative urge, a limited patience for the warped and the whimsical: all would be tested by a film like “Johnny Guitar,” which seems about as clued in to actual cowboys as Puccini’s “The Girl of the Golden West.” The movie is majestic, but, like the face of Joan Crawford, which could have been chipped from the buttress of a Gothic cathedral, it is howlingly close to mad.


Jenny Jediny for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

If Johnny Guitar could be whittled down to one word, it would not be cliché. Nicholas Ray’s now celebrated and sought-after “Western” (more on Ray’s cockeyed distortion of the genre later) is still weird, and still deliciously audacious more than fifty years after its original release. Ray’s first film as a director for hire after finishing out his contract with RKO was badly battered by critics and audiences in 1954, neither of whom were used to seeing Joan Crawford in such butch display, nor the “slightly awful” Trucolor of the picture—and then there’s the meandering storyline, that manages slip in Sterling Hayden as a gunslinger turned minstrel and a demonic nemesis for Crawford in the form of Mercedes McCambridge, who masks her lesbian lust with violence. Johnny Guitar exceeds expectations not merely because it’s a great film, but because it demolishes any conceptions you may have had prior to viewing it.


In remaining ambiguous, the film leaves not only its notions of sexuality up for debate, but also its commentary on isolation. As Johnny Guitar, portrayed by the deadpan Sterling Hayden, casually comments to an inquisitive gunslinger on his identity, “I’m a stranger here myself,” his words will reverberate throughout the remainder of Johnny Guitar, applying not only to the strummer, but to his lover and partner Vienna, and certainly to director Nicholas Ray. Ray’s affection for outsiders, and his own slow burn to recluse-status is at its peak here, and the script, contributed to by blacklisted screenwriter Ben Maddow, clearly taps into the then-hot political climate of McCarthyism. The rabid attacks on both Vienna and The Kid by Emma, as well as her gang’s disregard for proper criminal procedure are what lead to blind accusation, and Vienna’s brief encounter with a noose due to mob mentality. The outcasts here have a better grasp on reality than the local law, and as a result suffer for it; Ray seems to feel that the enlightened – not only here, but also in Rebel Without a Cause and his earlier noirs – are fated to suffer for their emotional honesty. Anthony Lane describes Johnny Guitar as “howlingly close to mad;” the description is not unfitting, as Ray’s efforts produced a result that is as unorthodox as it is marvelous. There doesn’t seem to be any other film quite like Johnny Guitar, and with contemporary cinema’s fascination with pastiche, there’s an endless amount of interpretation yet to be garnered from the film and its contemplations on identity and gender, compliance and autonomy. But surely, that’s not all there is to it.

Johnny Guitar 1954 Joan Crawford Nic Nicholas Ray


David Sanjek for Senses of Cinema:

Does it come at all as a surprise that the first image in the often-hallucinatory Johnny Guitar features an explosion, and one whose cause is not immediately apparent? Or that the next sequence draws attention to a seemingly unpremeditated stagecoach robbery? Or again that when the subsequent shot situates us in something at least affiliated to an outpost of civilization, the saloon and gambling house owned by Vienna (Joan Crawford), the physical environment in which it is located is tormented by a torrent of wind seemingly out of proportion to any of the weather we had observed in the previous two sequences? Extravagance of image and action are circumstances we customarily associate with the work of Nicholas Ray, yet the manner in which this film appears to take place in a universe that will frequently thwart custom or convention becomes emphasised even before we know who the characters are, where they are located or what their associations or motivations might be. Victor Young’s sonorous soundtrack and the familiar eagle emblem of Republic Pictures that accompany the credit sequence might easily mislead us to assume that this narrative will resemble its studio’s other outdoor output, just with better production values and higher-priced performers. But things are quite the contrary, and elements of what ensues will prove to be as anomalous than if Gene Autry or Roy Rogers, the studio’s pre-eminent western icons, were to be overcome by impulses as neurotic as those that threaten a number of the characters in the film’s narrative, or if one of their female co-stars were behaviourally bushwhacked by motivations as contorted as those imperilling Mercedes McCambridge’s distraught Emma Small.


As Geoff Andrew, in his indispensible extended analysis of Ray’s career, usefully reminds us: “Tension – a sense of things being so out of balance, so unstable, so fragile, that the whole edifice of a personality, a relationship or a society will fall apart – is virtually a sine qua non of Ray’s work” (1). Our sense of balance is thrown askew in Johnny Guitar even when the narrative launches us into a seemingly conventional establishment of place and personalities. Sterling Hayden’s eponymous hero evades any clear identification of his identity or intentions; the establishment’s middle-aged employees seem like little more than stage props without any customers for their services; and the masculine demeanour and curt dialogue attached to Crawford’s character reinforce how we cannot necessarily call upon genre-supported procedures to reassure us of our bearings. Even when the protagonists provide some manner of back-story to satisfy our concern with causality, the ingredients remain a curious blend of the obvious and the elusive. What specifically drove Johnny to adopt his pseudonym and return to Emma’s side after a prolonged absence? What brought together such a set of seemingly mismatched associates to comprise the Dancing Kid’s cohorts, such that Royal Dano’s book reading Corey finds himself paired with the hair-triggered Bart (Ernest Borgnine)? Why do we never learn the actual names of a number of figures, not just the Kid but also his youngest associate, Turkey (Ben Cooper), or the full name of Vienna for that matter? And then, one is left with the complex of fixations that are meant to provide some manner of anchorage for McCambridge’s scenery-chewing obsession with Vienna and her apparently thwarted attraction to the Dancing Kid (Scott Brady)? Are her excesses conveniently explained by conventional psychology or did the actress simply abandon any kind of discernable motivation and embark instead upon a behavioural free-for-all?


Evan Davis for MUBI:

One could say that Johnny Guitar is Ray’s most CinemaScope-like non-Scope film. In addition to finding the ability to expressively manipulate color that would find its way into all his subsequent films (Bitter Victory excepted), Ray also places bodies in space that activate either side of the screen, creating a horizontal balance to the frame that appears in Rebel, Bigger than Life, Bitter Victory, Party Girl and The Savage Innocents. Thanks to the narrower ratio and the insane colors, however, Johnny Guitar feels ready to explode in violent ecstasy.


The compositional tensions establish who the real opposing forces are in the film. Vienna and Johnny are lost lovers, coping with their pain, trying to find each other again. The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) is the diagonal figure, neither sympathetic nor repulsive, and entangled with everyone in some form. But Emma and Vienna—now there’s a pairing. Vienna’s colors are a sign of the self-acceptance she has cultivated over the past five years. Emma, on the other hand, is pure, repressed rage. She gleefully seeks Vienna’s blood for two reasons: she hates what Vienna can express, and hates herself for desiring Vienna for that very reason. When she captures Vienna and sends the saloon up in flames, it is as though all of Emma’s repressed energies explode, a sexual release made perverse due to its violence. Fewer eyes have been more fierce in the cinema.

Johnny Guitar 1954 Joan Crawford Nic Nicholas Ray


James Harvey dares to peer beyond the camp, in Movie Love in the Fifties:

Ray’s baroque and eccentric western is surely one of the most rigorously aestheticized movies ever to come out of mainstream (more or less) Hollywood. Ray’s stylization here is in the staging – the mise en scene – not the montage. But the artifice is more radical. If Ray got away with it – as he did, since the movie was a hit – escaping both front office and audience disapproval, that was importantly because it was a trashy sort of movie. One of the commonest ways for a filmmaker to get away with the fancy stuff was to do this with sort of over-the-top pulp material. It was almost like a license to commit artiness. So did a lot of others, directors like Sam Fuller, Robert Aldrich, Douglas Sirk, among the most notable.


The kiss and fadeout… It has almost the same sort of impact as the end of a great Astaire-Rogers dance does – of a triumphant romanticism. But here it’s less the impact of the “dancing,” such as it is, than of the filmmaking – and the way these two rather lugubrious people are swept up into it, even transformed by it, by its brio and exhilaration. They are also what give it poignancy, of course; and even Crawford in this movie, as absurdly imperious as ever, is unexpectedly moving. They are in, in their perverse sort of way, a deeply convincing couple – as old lovers, meeting after long and bitter separation. There is something weak and soft and yielding in Hayden’s very attractive male presence, something finally and determinedly evasive – just the sort of thing to baffle and outrage Crawford’s fierce intentionality, her steel-trap resolve an decisiveness. And because of that, we can believe in their wanting each other very much – and also in their not getting what they want, not easily anyway. Equally believable is the energy of exhaustion that brings them together at last[…] Its extraordinary. It’s as if a kind of sanity has been restored, a kind of reality. Life up here, on the empyrean heights, seems closer to farce than to melodrama.[…] Its that double-exposure effect that Ray imposes on people: a hero who’s not exactly a hero, a heroine who’s not exactly a heroine, a woman who is “more like a man,” a villain who is more like the heroine’s double, and so on. Its a fairy tale of course where the witch is less a malignant plotter than a terrifying improviser, and where Snow White has seen some rough times, which doesn’t keep her from shaping up the dwarfs in their lair. The evil force is not so much strange as uncomfortably recognizable – in the seductions of ugly feelings and violent acts. Emma, it’s very clear, has more fun than anyone else in the movie. And she simply has to be killed, that’s all – so that the shuddering revulsion she also inspires can give way to the light and freedom of the ending.


Johnny Guitar 1954

  • Michigan Patriot

    Even though very feminine actresses look the best in male clothes, especially tight cowboy duds ( think Jane Russell as ” Mike ” the outlaw cowboy leader of her gang named the ” The Torch ” from the movie ” Son of Paleface “; Joan does look pretty sexy in her cowboy drag outfit. In ” son of Paleface ” ; Jane Russell knocks out sexy cowboy Roy Rogers but fails to add his fancy duds to her own cowboy duds collection; Jane dressed as ” The King of the Cowboys ” would have been very sensually appealing !

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