“I’m a stranger here myself.”
That single line encapsulates the whole career of Nicholas Ray, one of ‘50s Hollywood’s under-appreciated luminaries. Like no other director of the era he brought to vivid life a coterie of freaks and outsiders — Humphrey Bogart’s brooding unstable screenwriter in In a Lonely Place, James Dean’s erratic juvenile in Rebel Without a Cause — with both cynicism and romanticism. In 1954’s Johnny Guitar, Ray turned his eye to perhaps the definitive American movie genre: the Western.
A Technicolor fantasia imbued with nuance and neuroticism alike (to reference Variety’s damning original review), the film follows Joan Crawford’s Vienna, a pre-possessing saloon-keeper fighting for her patch of Arizona dirt. Into her life strolls one Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden — always the picture of rubicund masculinity), a tall, blonde-haired stranger with a guitar in tow.
This just so happens to be the day a stagecoach is robbed on the outskirts of town, forcing a crisis between Vienna and the rabble-rousing Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), a repressed firebrand who hates Vienna for her hold on blithe, handsome bandit The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) — and he for his hold on her.
Johnny Guitar is a film that’s equally rewarding when viewed any number of ways. The film can be read as as an early feminist text. Crawford is magnificent, glaring imperiously down at the intruders in her saloon. When one of her croupiers turns directly to camera and says, “I’ve never seen a woman more a man”, we know it’s true; if only in so far as Vienna could take any one of those black-suited vigilantes.
More difficult is Emma, the sister of the murdered stagecoach driver who in another more conventional film would stand for justice and decency. Here, alternating between determined scowl and gleeful malice, she’s more akin to Abigail Williams, the scorned, hysteria-provoking catalyst in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, released the year before.
As with The Crucible, Johnny Guitar also stands as a parable about the dangerous of McCarthyism. When Emma and her posse capture one of The Kid’s crew, the callow, red-haired Turkey (Ben Cooper), their first move before lynching him is to threaten and cajole him into falsely confirming Vienna’s involvement in a recent bank robbery. Silhouetted later before the conflagration of the saloon, laughing at her own vandalism, Emma distinctly recalls another great cinematic villain; the Wicked Witch of the West.
Written by blacklisted screenwriter Ben Maddow under another name, Ray turns Johnny Guitar’s grand painted vistas and hokey back-projection into a strength: its luridness simultaneously heightens and subsumes the political commentary. Throw in some fraught psychosexual melodrama and you end up with a blend that’s both bizarre and enchanting — French New Wave director Francois Truffaut called the film “Beauty and the Beast of the Westerns”. Audiences at the time might not have known what to make of the film — it did poorly at the box office — but nor for that matter did HUAC.
Though it may not have been the first Western to use the trappings of genre for its own means — that honor arguably falls to 1943’s The Ox-Bow Incident — and indeed the whole thing ends with a shootout, as Westerns are wont to do, but Johnny Guitar contains some truly indelible moments: Hayden clutching a small, blue-white china teacup; Ernest Borgnine’s cheeky grin as he pours a recalcitrant Johnny another shot. And then there’s Peggy Lee’s stirring, longing title track.
While the film’s on-set tensions have equally become the stuff of oft-recounted legend — a jealous, drunken Crawford reportedly threw all of McCambridge’s clothes, herself then an alcoholic, into the street — Johnny Guitar stands on its own terms as a lurid, multi-faceted torch song for the ages.
Released in a new 4K restoration, Paramount Pictures’ Johnny Guitar will return to cinemas across the UK from 6 May, opening at BFI Southbank and selected sites nationwide