Noted filmmaker and critic, Francois Truffaut once rather cruelly referred to Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) as ‘Beauty and the Beast’ with Sterling Hayden as ‘beauty’. Indeed, by the mid-fifties, Joan Crawford’s career was once again circling the bowl after two legendary tenures; the first, at MGM – the studio that had changed her name from Lucille Fay LeSueur (after Metro’s raja, L.B. Mayer thought it sounded too much like ‘sewer’) and worked like hell to handcraft an alter ego in a series of ‘proverbial shop girl makes good’ programmers that made la Crawford the quintessence of the free-spirited flapper/career girl, hell-bent on rising above it all in a man’s world, and later, at Warner Bros., in a miraculous resurrection of Crawford’s star status that would see her surpass the popularity of even their own homegrown grand dame – Bette Davis; ultimately to stir an already brewing creative jealousy between these two ‘ladies’ into extremely competitive animosity. Johnny Guitar catches Crawford on the downswing, but in an exquisite vehicle for her ‘warrior princess’ like stance, railing against the system that made her but since lost interest in her; capped off by a steely professionalism that, even during her worst errors in artistic judgement (1970’s Trog immediately comes to mind) brilliantly shines through.
To add insult to injury, in 1953 Crawford’s reputation had been sullied by a series of articles published in the tabloid, Confidential, effectively labeling her a ‘bitch’, ‘barracuda’ and ‘baller’ of every director she had ever worked for; her Teflon-coated ‘star persona’ all but mutilated two decades later by stepdaughter, Christina Crawford’s ‘biography’, Mommie Dearest; a hatchet job: its integrity since brought into question. There is little doubt Joan Crawford could be manipulative and forthright to a fault. Throughout the fifties she seemed to have a ‘foot-in-mouth’ opinion about virtually every major star and up and comer, rising like cream to the top, while she incrementally sank in overall popularity. Just desserts, some said. Sour grapes, yours truly would suggest. But Crawford’s good sense may also have been clouded by the fact she was something of a raging alcoholic by the time Johnny Guitar went before the cameras. One can choose to blame the booze – if one is so inclined – for the hellacious outbursts that occurred between Crawford and co-star, Mercedes McCambridge – also, suffering under the influence of the bottle. Still, even in her youth, clawing to the top of the heap, Crawford never entirely warmed to the idea of ‘sharing a spotlight’ with anyone – particularly another female costar.
Of Johnny Guitar, audiences in general expected a traditional western. Meanwhile, Crawford fans hoped for one of her landmark melodramas. In the end, the picture seemed to satisfy neither taste. It was a box office dud and considered a minor work in Nicholas Ray’s directorial canon, easily forgotten and relegated to late night television fodder, filling dead air after the late show. Ah, but Johnny Guitar was hardly an artistic flop, even if its receipts did not rival Republic Picture’s expectations. For one thing, the screenplay (credited to Philip Yordan, but actually authored by blacklisted writer, Ben Maddow) is a perversely cerebral mind f_ck whose lesbian subtexts challenge and subvert, not only most of the conventions of the traditional Hollywood western, but also the repressed sexual mores of a socio/political button-down conservatism dictating protocol during the mid-1950's. Based on Roy Chanslor’s novel of the same name, Crawford’s star-drawing presence is ironic, as she is not the title character, Johnny Guitar (nee Logan, played to laconically glib perfection by Sterling Hayden), but the feisty and unrepentant saloon keeper, Vienna (Joan Crawford). It is precisely this sort of venomous spider woman Crawford was absolutely born to play. We can sincerely believe her when arch nemesis, Emma Small (McCambridge) seethes with gritted teeth, “I’m going to kill you!” while Crawford, narrowly raising a brow, coolly suggest, “Not if I kill you first.” There is something sinfully delicious about the sparring between these two middle-aged dragons and, in fact, that is practically all of the movie’s ‘charm’ – for the rest; the plot falling somewhere between voracious and tawdry potboiler and exactly the sort of mid-grade plonk Crawford was likely getting soused on between takes.
Crawford had played bitches before, but never one quite so desperately in need of a man to simply take her away from it all; a rather feminine damsel in distress beneath the mannish warrior princess more readily on display. Crawford’s physicality is well-suited to the role. Gone is that glycerin, so thickly layered in portraitures by George Hurrell or Laszlo Willinger; Crawford, the elegant clothes horse, bewitched by gardenias. Even the shape of her head seems different; something about the way her once oval jaw has squared off, turning her head into an upside down flowerpot; the striking assault on our eyes made complete by her tightly cropped/curled hair, those tarantula-thick and furry arched eyebrows, and Crawford’s unwillingness to surrender her trademarked broad lips, threatening to completely swallow the lower half of her head. She really is a caricature of the Joan Crawford we remember from the thirties – even the forties – perhaps best, as the repellent mantrap in 1939’s The Women, or self-sacrificing restauranteur in Mildred Pierce (1945). Critics have noted ‘there was a distinct harshness’ about Crawford that, after 1950, never went away and, on occasion, could only marginally be softened through careful key lighting, but on the whole, continued to wreak havoc on her screen presence. By the late fifties, Crawford could no longer play ‘lovers’ except, perhaps of the psychotic ilk, obsessed and vengeful, angry and possessed of a maniacal desperation to fit in among the ‘normal’ class. In retrospect, Johnny Guitar begins to show the way to these later raving loons; Crawford, unflinchingly full of the rue and revenge that can drive a good woman to do very bad things in order to survive. And make no mistake about it: Crawford’s six-shooter hostess of this hacienda is actually a sheep in wolf’s clothing.
Vienna has built herself a stately saloon in the middle of nowhere – a bastion in wait of the approaching railway, likely never to come. But she has tangled with the wrong brood; gunslinger, the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) and his men, introspective Corey (Royal Dano), thuggish Bart Lonegran (Ernest Borgnine) and young buck, Turkey Ralston (Ben Cooper). These are fair-weather friends at best who mean her no harm, though conversely, are not up to doing her much good either. Known by the company she keeps, Vienna’s brash actions fall under the scrutiny of local maven, Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) who blames her for the death of her beloved brother. Moreover, Emma harbors a conflicted emotional detachment towards the Dancin’ Kid, thwarted by the Kid’s own malingering sexual interest in Vienna. The women are sworn enemies and Emma does everything within her power to insight local lawmen, John McIvers (Ward Bond) and Marshall Williams (Frank Ferguson) to either arrest or exile Vienna from the valley. It does not help matters Vienna is frequently hostile towards the town folk, made up primarily of cattlemen who see the coming of the rail as detrimental to their way of life. Emma plays upon these fears. She also draws the conclusion Vienna and the Kid are in cahoots as camouflage and desperado respectively.
Into this toxic mix (or steaming pile of manure) steps bow-legged and broad-shouldered Johnny ‘Guitar’ Logan (Sterling Hayden); an indifferent sort whose current profession masks his spurious past as a fatalistic gunslinger, incapable of controlling his own bloodlust when modestly provoked. Five long years have passed since Vienna and Johnny’s hot and heavy love affair ended. Yet, it never entirely cooled and Johnny’s reappearance inside Vienna’s saloon fans the embers anew almost immediately. Vienna’s ever-loyal hired man, Old Tom (John Carradine) stands watch over the town’s increasing animosity toward his boss – particularly after McIvers and the Marshall order the saloon closed and the Kid and his men out of town within twenty-four hours. Although Vienna has had absolutely nothing to do with the Kid’s most recent thievery, no one is convinced of her innocence. Worse, bad timing on Vienna’s part places her inside the bank at precisely the moment the Kid and his men decide to knock it over. The Kid and his motley crew escape into the hills on horseback, all except Turkey – who earlier had unsuccessfully attempted to offer himself to Vienna as her protector and lover. Wounded in their escape, Turkey collapses in the woods, his horse discovered and taken by McIvers and the Marshall as their posse scours the thicket for clues. Old Tom manages to save Turkey and bring him back to the saloon where Vienna agrees to conceal him from the law.
Headlined by the rabid Emma, the posse breaks into the saloon. Vienna tells them they are wasting their time and admonishes everyone for their small-minded bigotry and her stake in the town’s future. However, in his weakened condition, Turkey exposes his whereabouts, hiding under one of the gambling tables, at the exact moment when it looks as though the Sheriff and his boys just might be willing to accept Vienna’s story as the gospel. Emma threatens Turkey with hanging unless he renounces his loyalties to Vienna and tells everyone she is part of the Kid’s gang. Although there is no truth to this, to save himself from the hangman’s noose, Turkey incriminates Vienna, leaving McIver no alternative but to place both Turkey and Vienna under arrest. Feeling vindicated in her misguided and thoroughly vindictive beliefs, Emma orders the law to hang the pair. Old Tom threatens to shoot the Marshall if anyone makes a move on Vienna. He is shot and killed by McIvers, though not before making good on his promise too. Elated, Emma orders the posse to take Vienna directly to the gallows. With a look of orgasmic pleasure splashed across her leering visage she shoots an ornate candle-lit chandelier loose from its mooring rope, the saloon ablaze and destroyed in no time; in effect, wiping away any scrap of Vienna’s presence from the valley.
In the hills, Johnny witnesses the posse making for the bridge to hang Turkey and Vienna without a fair trial. Hightailing into the woods, Johnny creeps down to a bridge. He is too late to prevent Turkey from being executed. Now, Emma orders McIver to do Vienna’s hanging himself. McIver takes a stand, informing Emma if she wants Vienna dead she will have to kill her herself. Johnny cuts the rope loose from the bridge as Emma strikes Vienna’s horse. Johnny then rescues Vienna and together the two escape into the night through an underground mine leading to the Kid’s mountaintop hideaway. The next day, Corey lets Vienna and Johnny pass to the Kid’s cabin. Vienna informs everyone that Turkey is dead. Bart confides in Corey he has a plan to split their stolen bankroll two ways. Ever-faithful, Corey refuses to partake and is murdered by Bart instead. Bart now tries to kill the Kid who is currently acting as a lookout for the posse. But Johnny saves the Kid’s life by shooting Bart dead. The sound of the gunshot, and Bart’s body plummeting down the escarpment, alert Emma and the posse to the Kid’s hideaway. Tired of Emma’s endless bloodlust, McIver tells Emma she will have to settle their vendetta herself. Emma and Vienna have their showdown atop the porch of the Kid’s hideaway. Emma shoots the Kid in the head and wounds Vienna in the shoulder. Johnny tries to intervene but Vienna gets off the fatal round; Emma tumbling down a steep ravine into the valley far below. McIver and his men collect her badly bruised body and carry it back into town, leaving Johnny and Vienna to rekindle their love amid the ruins of their fallen comrades.
Johnny Guitar is a potent – if utterly strange - amalgam of the typical Joan Crawford star vehicle meets the mid-fifties Hollywood western. The best thing in the picture is Crawford’s malicious hurly-burly with Mercedes McCambridge. Their confrontations on the set after cameras stopped rolling were even more legendary. Nicholas Ray would later suggest making the movie as one of the absolute worst experiences of his entire career, Crawford and McCambridge’s daily verbal fisticuffs, a sort of ‘cockfight’ without the ‘cock’. “They would have killed each other for real if I let them.” Yet, Crawford is moodily magnificent as this fantastic fox in heat with flashes of death in her eyes, like daggers ready to draw and quarter the enemy. As an actress, Mercedes McCambridge is Crawford’s equal in every way. Perhaps this realization is what Crawford resented the most about her co-star. Clearly, it proved a destructive presence on set with Crawford fuming and McCambridge frequently brought to tears. It remains apropos to remember two things about Joan Crawford as a person – particularly in the shadow of ‘Mommie Dearest’. First, she did not begin life as a demigod, lusting with mental defect built on malice to make those around her utterly miserable. Nor, arguably, did she end her time on this earth as the superficial gargoyle painted in broad strokes in that scathing postmortem tell-all. Second, Crawford’s later struggles with fellow artists and her family had a great deal to do with her innate inability to relinquish some impossible career aspirations to the inevitable ravages of time. It marches on. One cannot play the winsome ingénue, buxom babe or raving sexpot forever. Unwilling to accept what the mileage of the years had accrued on her chassis, Crawford denied both fate and time, impractically ordering youth to remain at her side. What she might have been as an actress with another twenty odd ‘good years’ at her disposal, or by simply accepting parts more suited to her age, we will never know. Crawford’s prime was already on the wane by the time she made Johnny Guitar. Soon, it would be wholly absent as the star struggled, not so much to reinvent herself, but fake vitality with increasingly embarrassing pretentiousness.
Another fascinating aspect of the film is its deliberate anti-McCarthyism critique; the way screenwriter, Maddow – afflicted by the black list – illustrates the devious supplanting of law and order under the auspices of an external influence with vial repercussions. Emma Small is neither an elected official nor a lawman. Yet, her whims begin to infect, and then dictate, the very principles of the community in which she resides. Her undiluted, if thoroughly unfounded belief she is right, stems from nothing better than a misguided sense of morality, skewed by a streak of insane jealousy that manages to cannibalize and blindside all forms of sound logic. The posse would have hanged Vienna on nothing more concrete than Emma’s say so; a startling indictment of just how easily one vindictive individual can besmirch the character of another using only innuendo and allegations. Finally, there is a very bizarre sexual aberrance at play throughout the film; an almost hypnotic lesbianism, most transparent in McCambridge’s Emma, supposedly attracted to the Dancin’ Kid, except she is physically repulsed by the very touch of his hand when he tries to take her in his arms for a cheap grope in a dance. McCambridge also infuses her character with an even more magnetic love/hate passion for Crawford’s Vienna. Here is a woman she cannot possess, for obvious reasons, and therefore is determined to obliterate under the rubric that if she cannot have Vienna, no one can; a sexual frustration run amuck with a sort of frenzied/closeted joy. And then, of course, there is the company of men in this ensemble to reconsider. Whether it is Vienna’s saloon staff, all subservient to her demands as the proprietress, or her interactions with The Kid (with whom we are told she briefly had a fling in a past life) or even Johnny Logan, suggested in the final reel as her sexual equal (they both think like men), the boys of Johnny Guitar are a curiously emasculated bunch of gun-toting/guitar-strumming capons, quite incapable of matching this tigress in the bedroom.
To some extent, Crawford’s reputation as a carnivorous mantrap, rumored to have slept with all her directors and most of the male co-stars during her 40 plus career, contributes to the devouring presence she radiates herein. But there is also a more inquisitive asexuality at play in Crawford’s Vienna. She wears pants and long-sleeved shirts almost exclusively, arguably to assimilate into this predominantly male underworld. It is no accident the one time Vienna dons a dress – no less captivating in virginal white – the character’s defiance against the status quo becomes even more brittle, stripped bare by the lynch mob, who interpret the feminine lure as undermining Vienna’s overt masculine traits, thereby deconstructing the myth of her power and authority, largely embodied by the clothes worn elsewhere throughout the movie. There are other varied interpretations that bear further discussion elsewhere. Suffice it to say Johnny Guitar is far more fascinating and multifaceted than either audiences or critics of its day gave it credit. Nicholas Ray, a director I have long admired, and not simply for his generally acknowledged ‘counterculture’ approach to film-making, has taken a very vintage premise – man (or in this case, woman) against the world - and an equally vintage genre – the western – and infused both scenario and theme with some very contemporary characteristics. Arguably, these have not dated and will likely to continue and linger in our collective consciousness for many years yet to come. Johnny Guitar is therefore hardly a ‘minor’ effort. It is, in fact, one of Nicholas Ray’s lesser known masterworks.
Olive Media’s new Signature Edition Blu-ray corrects a multitude of sins previously committed on their first bite at the apple. For starters, the movie is now correctly framed in its 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The original release was an open matte in 1.33:1. But this re-issue really delivers the goods in other ways too, starting with a brand new 4K upgrade. Johnny Guitar was photographed in Tru-Color by Consolidated; an arguably inferior and flawed process with a surreal palette of hues that adds yet another patina to the film’s already impressionistic verisimilitude. While the original Blu-ray suffered from considerable instability, Olive’s remastering efforts here have yielded a virtually rock solid presentation with uncharacteristically strong color balance and overall fidelity; a sort of faithfully reproduced ice-cream sundae look with flesh tones and a lot of powder puff hues, offset by blood reds and canary yellows at their most vibrant. Greens and browns remain somewhat muted, but this is Tru-Color in all its flawed glory. Contrast levels are bang on, and blacks levels are very deep without ever becoming crushed. Fine detail is superbly realized. Gone is the hint of DNR compression that infrequently made a few of the scenes on the original release look marginally soft and waxy. Nothing has been left to chance this time around. This presentation celebrates Harry Stradling’s lurid cinematography to a tee. The audio is mono DTS and exhibits a generally pleasing, if limited listening experience.
Olive Media’s Signature Edition has also piled on the ‘special features, including an audio commentary by historian/critic, Geoff Andrew; ‘Tell Us She Was One of You: The Blacklist History of Johnny Guitar’ – hosted by historian, Larry Ceplair and blacklisted screenwriter, Walter Bernstein; ‘Is Johnny Guitar a Feminist Western?: Questioning the Canon’, as well as a critical appraisal of Ray’s work - from critics, Miriam Bale, Kent Jones, Joe McElhaney and B. Ruby Rich; ‘Free Republic: The Story of Herb Yates and Republic Studios’ – hosted by archivist, Marc Wanamaker; ‘My Friend, The American Friend’ – a biographical piece from Tom Farrell, and finally, ‘Johnny Guitar: The First Existential Western’ - an original essay from critic, Jonathan Rosenbaum. Are we excited yet? Yes, we are! Olive has really stepped up their game with this re-issue and their efforts ought to be applauded with a show of pre-orders and purchases. You are going to LOVE this disc. It’s that simple. We tip our hats when tipping is due. Johnny Guitar: Signature Edition Blu-ray is worthy of the nod.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)