The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the Fabulous Films of the 50s Blogathon, currently underway from May 22-26 and hosted by The Classic Movie Blog Association. For a list of the participating blogs and the movies under discussion, click here.
"There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforward there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray." – Jean-Luc Godard
From 1947 to 1963, Ray helmed a number of feature films whose common theme was often that of a loner pitted against society, and this subject perhaps reached its full culmination in his best-known film, Rebel without a Cause (1955). Nick also held the reins on a number of classic noirs that include They Live by Night (1949), Knock on Any Door (1949), In a Lonely Place (1950) and On Dangerous Ground (1951)—which would be reason enough to ensure his place here at TDOY as a pet director. And yet…if asked to name my favorite from his oeuvre, I’d unquestionably nominate what Leonard Maltin once tabbed “the screen’s great kinky Western”: Johnny Guitar (1954)—which, appropriately enough, will celebrate the 60th anniversary of its New York opening this Monday (May 26).
Vienna’s expected financial windfall is a sore subject with the locals, notably a wealthy rancher named John McIvers (Ward Bond) and Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), the sister of the bank president; all of whom are concerned about her plans to build a rail station. Emma further stirs up resentment against Vienna with several townsfolk by accusing her of being in collusion with the gang that robbed a stagecoach, shooting and killing her brother in the process. This gang is headed up by an outlaw known as The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady); his confederates are the thuggish Bart Lonergan (Ernest Borgnine), wet-behind-the-ears Turkey Ralston (Ben Cooper) and the consumptive Corey (Royal Dano).
Johnny has not even had time to kick the dust off his boots when he’s witness to the confrontation between Vienna and Emma’s ginned-up mob; matters are further complicated when The Kid and his mates show up announced. The Kid and his gang disavows any involvement in the stagecoach holdup and granted, the evidence against them resides on an unreliable eyewitness—the stagecoach driver (Trevor Bardette), who really can’t make a positive identification despite Emma’s persistent badgering. Nevertheless, the town marshal (Frank Ferguson) gives Vienna 24 hours to amscray usterbay; Johnny, for his part, agrees to help Vienna in her stand against the town…for we learn not long afterward that the couple was romantically involved at one time.
Dancin’ Kid and Company retreat to their “lair,” the entrance of which is cleverly concealed by a waterfall. The outlaws are actually innocent of the stagecoach robbery—though it seems they always have money, they mostly subside on the proceeds from a silver mine that is perilously close to being played out. So The Kid makes a decision—since they’re already considered criminals in the eyes of the locals, they’ll make it worth their while by holding up the bank while the majority of the townsfolk are attending the funeral of Emma’s brother and ride off to California. Unfortunately, Vienna happens to be in the bank to close her account at the same time the Kid and his minions are making their large withdrawal. She pleads with The Kid not to go through with it to no avail. Johnny watches as the gang beats a hasty retreat with their ill-gotten gains but does not attempt to stop them (a smart move on his part, since he’s unarmed). The guitar man also suggests to Vienna that she reconsider getting out of town as fast as she can since suspicion is eventually going to fall on her. Vienna stubbornly stands her ground, and it is implied that Johnny has moved on to other destinations.
The Kid and his chums double back toward their waterfall hideout, except that Turkey is injured, calling him to fall off his horse. The injured outlaw manages to make his way to Vienna’s casino moments before Emma, Marshal Williams and the rest of the lynch mob arrive to interrogate her about the bank job. Vienna maintains her innocence, but Turkey’s hiding place inside the casino is discovered…prompting Emma to browbeat the frightened youth into admitting that Vienna was in on the caper in a futile effort to save himself from a hanging. One of Vienna’s employees, Old Tom (John Carradine), tries to hold off the mob but winds up being killed in the process…and since a shot fired from Tom’s gun also takes care of the marshal, mob rule results in the ordered executions of Turkey and Vienna.
The two fugitives establish an uneasy alliance with The Kid since the Emma-led mob discovers the location of the lair by following Turkey’s horse. Emma makes a deal with Bart: she’ll give him half of the bank take and allow him to escape if he agrees to turn over Vienna and Johnny. (When the principled Corey raises an objection to this, Bart finds that the small of his friend’s back is a mighty handy place to keep his knife.) Bart winds up being shot by Johnny, and both Johnny and The Kid witness a final showdown between Vienna and Emma (well, The Kid doesn’t stick around for the conclusion because Emma pulls a bullet in his brainpan). Vienna emerges victorious, and the film concludes with her reunion with Johnny and the promise of a new life for both of them.
The movie Western has long been considered by its many devotees to be one of the most conservative of all genres; its celebration of rugged individualism and adherence to a strong moral code (good guys vs. bad) plus presence of such conservative icons as John Wayne and Roy Rogers have additionally contributed a good deal to this precept. So when a Western subverts this conservatism, it tends to make oaters a little more interesting; the best example of this might be Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), which many critics (and screenwriter Carl Foreman) consider an allegory of the political climate in Hollywood at the time of its release (Will Kane’s inability to get help to deal with an outlaw gang parallels the reluctance of individuals to help those victimized by the witch hunts). Another example is Silver Lode (1954), in which the citizen of a small town (John Payne) is basely accused of murder and theft charges by a Dan Duryea-played villain named “McCarty” (nothing too subtle there).
(The fact that Johnny’s occupation is now that of a musician-entertainer shouldn’t go unnoticed…and having real-life informer Sterling Hayden play the role adds additional verisimilitude.) Vienna is a “fellow traveler,” because of her contact with the outlaws; the townspeople consider her an outsider, a “foreigner”—even her name suggests as such. Turkey, who ultimately turns stool pigeon (notice the yellow shirt he wears in his opening scenes), is the “friendly witness” who thinks “naming names” will save his neck from a noose. And if you’re going to have a witch hunt…you’re going to need a witch in the form of Emma, who’s dressed in black for much of the movie and represents those witnesses/politicians who used the House Un-American Activities Committee to destroy their despised enemies.
Crawford’s jealousy of younger actresses was legion (and the feud between the two women had its roots in Joan’s having dated at one time Mercedes’ ex-husband, Fletcher Markle); an oft-told anecdote describes how Ray found a drunken Joan staggering along a highway late one night, leaving a trail of clothing that turned out to be Mercedes’ wardrobe. To her credit, McCambridge later admitted that she herself was wrestling with alcoholism during the making of the film, which added additional fuel to the fire. (Still, when I think of Crawford I can’t help but remember McCambridge’s memorable description of her as “a mean, tipsy, powerful, rotten-egg lady.”)
And I like money.” Not the strongest of actors, he did what he could with the tools that he had; his performances largely depended on the caliber of film he was in, like The Asphalt Jungle (1950) or The Killing (1956). In fact, in an interview on the Criterion DVD release of Killing, Hayden was a bit perplexed as to why Johnny Guitar enjoyed the cult reputation it did; he himself was no fan of the picture, and couldn’t figure out why he landed the title role since he couldn’t shoot, ride a horse…or play the guitar.
I‘m convinced Hayden got tabbed for the part because the actor famously testified in front of HUAC but later came to regret it…which, as previously noted, offers a bit of wry commentary on his character in the film. Nicholas Ray was known for his leftist politics, and although the screenplay credit for Johnny Guitar goes to Philip Yordan, Yordan was actually fronting for blacklisted scribe Ben Maddow (the scene where Johnny reveals his real identity is sort of significant in this aspect). The presence of actor Ward Bond (whose character not coincidentally has a “Mc” in his name—“Either you side with them or with us” is a line of his that establishes his motives in an eye blink) is another interesting facet of the film; Bond was a dues-paying member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an anti-Communist organization whose dedication to the ferreting out of Reds in the film industry linked arms with HUAC in its mission to stop the Menace dead in its tracks. (Seriously—the Alliance did everything it could for HUAC except secure its members hookers and blow.)
The idea of concentrating on a strong female heroine (one of Vienna’s employees cracks: “I’ve never seen a woman who was more man—she thinks like one, acts like one…and sometimes makes me feel like I’m not”) was unquestionably pushed by star Crawford (who was also the chief architect of the film project, having pitched the idea of adapting Roy Chanslor’s 1953 novel to Republic), as Guitar can be considered one of her many feature films in which Joanie portrayed fiercely independent women. But a lot of Johnny Guitar’s origins can also be attributed to another subversive western, Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious (1952), which features a similar heroine in Altar Keane (played by Marlene Dietrich), who also worked in a casino and enjoys the company of outlaws. (Rancho’s theme of fate, emphasized through the “chuck-a-luck” wheel, is echoed by Guitar’s Vienna’s insistence that her croupier Eddie keep her roulette wheel spinning even when there are no customers present—“I like to hear it spin.”) Much of the sexual symbolism from Rancho has also been imported to Guitar (guns, safes, staircases—as my Facebook friend, author-critic Hal Erickson once mused: “One wonders why they left out a train going into a tunnel”), but it’s the unconventionality of the Vienna-Emma conflict that is of great interest to modern audiences. There’s a none-too-subtle suggestion that the reason why Emma would love nothing more than to claw Vienna’s eyes out is not because she’s in love with The Kid (Vienna: “He makes her feel like a woman…and that frightens her”) but that she’s pining for the unrequited love of her female rival.
(The western was largely filmed around Sedona, AZ; the rocks of which have a reddish tint that also shows up strikingly in the film.) In addition to the breathtaking cinematography by Harry Stradling, Sr., Victor Young’s soaring operatic score for Guitar—featuring a theme song sung and co-written by Peggy Lee—foreshadows that composed by Ennio Morricone for Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).
Many veteran Western players appear in Johnny Guitar: Ward Bond, Paul Fix, Royal Dano, Trevor Bardette, Denver Pyle, Sheb Wooley, etc. The movie features one of my favorite performances from character great John Carradine, of whom I have made no secret of my immense fondness here on the blog in the past. Carradine works magic with an admittedly small part as Old Tom, a loyal employee of Vienna’s establishment who brushes off her concerns for his well-being (he was supposed to have left with the others to escape the wrath of the lynch mob) with “Nobody notices me…I’m just part of the furniture.” But Tom makes a heroic stand to keep the mob from hanging Vienna and is shot down for his trouble; his last words are “Look…everybody's looking at me…it's the first time I ever felt important.” Sheer poetry.
Ray later observed: “Quite a few times, I would have to stop the car and vomit before I got to work in the morning.” The speculation is that the director’s attitude might have been influenced by the voluminous negative reviews Guitar initially received (it was panned by a lot of critics, including notorious New York Times wanker Bosley Crowther) even though it performed well in the Court of Public Opinion known as “the box office.” On the other side of the pond, it was embraced by many of the French critics who would soon turn to directing as part of the Nouvelle Vague; François Truffaut called it “the Beauty and the Beast of Westerns” and it was Truffaut who stoked my initial interest in seeing the film after I read about it in The Films in My Life. (Though to be completely honest, it was Danny Peary’s essay in Cult Movies that did most of the heavy lifting; I got the opportunity to see Guitar on Cinemax in the 1990s and have revisited it countless times since.) Selected to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry list in 2008 and finally available on Region 1 DVD since 2012, there’s no excuse to miss this one-of-a-kind “hallucinatory Western,” which turns the genre upside down with its symbolism (both political and sexual) and contemporary feel.