Friday, September 23, 2016

Adventures in Blu-ray: Johnny Guitar (1954)

This past Tuesday (September 20), Olive Films rolled out their “Olive Signature” series with a re-release of the 1952 classic High Noon…but what distinguishes this Blu-ray (and DVD) from past incarnations is its amazing new video/audio transfer, not to mention some bodacious bonuses and extras to enhance the home video experience.  In addition to High Noon, the company has afforded the same blue ribbon treatment to another oater that’s held in high esteem here in the House of Yesteryear: Johnny Guitar (1954), which director Bernardo Bertolucci once described as “the first of the baroque westerns.”

Danny Peary’s essay on Guitar in Cult Movies inarguably whetted my appetite to initially see this film, and my first opportunity arrived when it turned up on Cinemax in the 1990s (along with Pursued and Force of Evil), where it was introduced by director/movie buff Martin Scorsese.  (Scorsese’s introduction to Guitar is one of several extras on the Olive Signature Blu-ray.)  It’s a Western unlike any other, loaded with subversive, radical content (it’s even more of an indictment of the political climate in Hollywood than High Noon) and sexual imagery that gives it a most contemporary feel.  Guitar is also an example of what critic Andrew Sarris labeled “Freudian feminism”; it’s unavoidable noticing that the two female characters in the movie are far more “tougher” than their male counterparts.

The plot involves a saloonkeeper named Vienna (Joan Crawford), who is not held in particularly high regard by her fellow townsfolk, a mob headed up by Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) and wealthy rancher John McIvers (Ward Bond).  Emma condemns Vienna for consorting with a group of outlaws led by “The Dancin’ Kid” (Scott Brady), a man for whom she secretly has strong feelings herself.  This alleged collusion with the Kid and his gang is really just a smokescreen for the fact that Vienna’s establishment lies in close proximity to a transcontinental railroad being constructed in the area; if Vienna goes through with her plans to build a rail station she will be a very wealthy woman indeed.

Conflict arises when Vienna hires an old flame (Sterling Hayden) who calls himself “Johnny Guitar” to protect her interests; unbeknownst to anyone else, Johnny is actually an ex-gunslinger named Johnny Logan.  During the course of the movie, Vienna finds herself accused of helping the Kid stage a bank robbery (one of the Kid’s minions lies about her participation in a futile attempt to escape a lynch mob) and is forced to take it “on the lam” with Johnny.  Johnny Guitar concludes with the anticipated showdown between Vienna and Emma, and presumably Vienna and her Guitar man will be free to pursue a life of marital fulfillment.

My enthusiasm for Johnny Guitar is such that I selected it as the topic of my sermon during the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Fabulous Films of the 50s blogathon in May of 2014…so if you want a more thorough examination of this fascinating film, I implore you to click here.  It’s a movie that without question demands multiple viewings in order to take in all of its sly subtext (for example, the way the various characters’ wardrobe colors comment on their motivations).  It also helps to know the fascinating production history of the film; sure, Joan Crawford’s Vienna and Mercedes McCambridge’s Emma square off against one another in Guitar…but the two actresses tangled off-screen as well (Joanie was jealous of her younger co-star—a sentiment expressed to any ingénue who appeared in a movie with Joan).  There was no love lost between the male (Hayden) and female (La Joan) stars, either: “There’s is not enough money in Hollywood to lure me into making another picture with Joan Crawford,” Hayden purportedly remarked after his experience.  “And I like money.”

Because Johnny Guitar was filmed in what Republic Pictures labeled “Trucolor”—a more economical alternative to Technicolor—the movie was the victim of severe fading over the years until it underwent significant repair in the 1990s.  The new 4k restoration featured on the Olive Signature Blu-ray only highlights the film’s dazzling color scheme, making it sparkly as all get out.  Accompanying the disc is a first-rate essay (“Johnny Guitar: The First Existential Western”) contributed by film critic/author Jonathan Rosenbaum (who included Guitar on his list of the 100 best American films in a 1998 Chicago Reader column in response to the American Film Institute’s Top 100), and an audio commentary track from Geoff Andrew (author of The Films of Nicholas Ray).

Of the Blu-ray’s supplementary material, my fascination with movies that either deal directly or indirectly with the Hollywood blacklist made me gravitate toward “Tell Us She Was One of You: The Blacklist History of Johnny Guitar.”  Historian Larry Ceplair and blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein (The Front) encore on this (they do a similar mini-feature for High Noon).  Film critics Miriam Bale, Kent Jones, Joe McElhaney, and B. Ruby Rich are featured on “Johnny Guitar: A Western Like No Other” (an overview of the movie) and “Is Johnny Guitar a Feminist Western?”—which offers some lively give-and-take on “questioning the canon.”  Rounding out the bonuses are reminiscences from Tom Farrell and Chris Sievernich on working with director Ray (“My Friend, the American Friend”—which references the 1977 Wim Wenders movie) and another one I enjoyed (I only wish it had been longer), “Free Republic: The Story of Herbert J. Yates and Republic Pictures,” from archivist Marc Wanamaker (author of Early Poverty Row Studios).

“Coveted editions of the films you know and love, Olive Signature is our gift to the many fans, aficionados, and cinephiles who hold these films near and dear,” a press release from Olive Films boldly states.  In the case of both Johnny Guitar and High Noon, they are among my favorite films and most worthy of rediscovery time and time again.  (Many thanks to Bradley Powell at Olive Films for providing Thrilling Days of Yesteryear with the Johnny Guitar screener.)

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