François Truffaut once affectionately referred to Nicholas Ray’s 1954 film Johnny Guitar as a “phony Western,” and that may be the most efficient way to describe its wonderful peculiarities. Here’s a film that has all the elements of a Western—gunslingers, a saloon, a vengeful posse, a band of outlaws, a climactic showdown between hero and villain—and yet doesn’t look or behave like one in the least. The color photography pops like a Vincente Minnelli musical, the melodrama burns like Douglas Sirk at his most florid, the dialogue is full of poetic and often ruthlessly funny turns of phrase, and the two most powerful characters are not grizzled tough guys but ferocious women who hold such men under their sway. It also doubles as a forceful allegory for the McCarthy witch-hunts, written by a blacklisted writer (Ben Maddow) and driven by a mood of anger, paranoia, and reckless indignation. Johnny Guitar has been dubbed a camp classic—having Joan Crawford in the lead all but guarantees the label—but a film this singular isn’t so easy to pin down.
Crawford stars as the owner of Vienna’s, a saloon and gambling parlor located in the dusty center of Arizona cattle country. “Down there I sell whiskey and cards,” she announces from the perch of her office upstairs. “All you can buy up here is a bullet in the head.” In a development that would be lifted wholesale for Sergio Leone’s great Once Upon A Time In The West, Crawford gets into a dispute with the locals about a proposed train route that will dramatically transform this insular community. She’s for it, having cleverly bought the property after getting a tip from a surveyor, but the ranchers are firmly against it. The hostility between both sides intensifies when Crawford welcomes a group of suspected stagecoach robbers into her saloon, including one (Scott Brady) who shares her bed. Into this volatile situation strides Crawford’s old flame Sterling Hayden, the “Johnny Guitar” of the title, a reformed gunslinger who finds reason to take up arms again when the village posse, led by a deranged Mercedes McCambridge, threatens to shut down Vienna’s, and possibly string up Crawford and all her allies.
In his original New York Times review, Bosley Crowther wrote of Crawford, “No more femininity comes from her than from the rugged [Van] Heflin in Shane. For the lady, as usual, is as sexless as the lions on the public library steps and as sharp and romantically forbidding as a package of unwrapped razor blades.” He meant this disparagingly—and dismissed Johnny Guitar as a “fiasco,” making it one of roughly a billion times when Bosley Crowther got it wrong—but Crawford pulls off a radical gender reversal in the film, projecting such authority that she renders Hayden, an imposing badass in his own right, almost feminine by comparison. And she gets equal pushback in the wild-eyed McCambridge, who orchestrates her demise with a relentless fury that’s meant to recall Joseph McCarthy, including a scene where she cajoles Crawford’s allies to name names. To this most conservative of genres, Ray brought a leftist, feminist, revisionist sensibility that was at least 15 years ahead of its time. It was the quintessential anti-Western before the anti-Western existed.
Key features: A brief but spirited introduction by Martin Scorsese, recorded for a previous home-video release.