In Johnny Guitar, Nicholas Ray’s phantasmagorical 1954 Western, it takes fewer than two minutes for a deafening explosion of dynamite to ring out. The detonation comes courtesy of railroad workers clearing space for new tracks — and it signifies the arduous journey of Eastern expansionism. It is a sound whose viscerality will reverberate in every image of this film, and become the catalyst for its increasingly volatile drama.
Johnny Guitar’s titular hero (played by the imperturbable Sterling Hayden) begins the film by wandering down from the mountains in the midst of a ferocious storm onto a dusty road, one with seemingly only a single destination: a Saloon owned by Vienna (Joan Crawford), a former love interest of Johnny and now a potential employer. Vienna’s bar, with its mysterious origins, is situated right on the path of the new railroad, providing a ripe opportunity of wealth for the business owner, but also igniting a feeling of raw bitterness from the nearby townsfolk, whose wealthiest members — a group who own a vast majority of the land — attempt to manipulate the rest of the town against Vienna.
Johnny Guitar fits perfectly into Ray’s oeuvre of films about lonely, alienated people living on the fringes of society: the doomed, fleeing lovers of They Live by Night or Robert Mitchum’s world-weary, wandering rodeo star in The Lusty Men. Not only do the characters of Johnny Guitar drift through life without purpose, but so too does the entire world around them seem to: Ray’s vision of Americana lacks the vibrant soul of community with which many other directors imbue it. The film feels very much like a reflection of Ray’s own soul: a man troubled by addiction, who was prone to self-destructive relationships, and who eventually became a true Hollywood outcast when he could no longer find creative freedom within studios, or money to fund independent projects.
Made at the height of McCarthy’s anti-communist campaign, which of course resulted in mass blacklisting — including this film’s writer, Ben Maddow — Johnny Guitar can be seen as a product of Ray’s affiliation with left-wing radicalism, dating back to the ‘30s (which saw him working in leftist agitprop theater and a brief stint with the Communist Youth League). Ray himself, however, was never blacklisted. — and there are different schools of thought as to the reason for this, with many believing he secretly gave names, whereas the filmmaker himself claimed it was his strange relationship to Hollywood mogul and monolith Howard Hughes that saved him.
Throughout Johnny Guitar, Ray refuses to indulge in the commonalities of the Western genre: the bustling streets, rowdy gambling dens, galloping horses, and family homes. Instead, he focuses on Vienna’s pristine saloon, which is sparsely populated with both decoration and customers. In the opening minutes, when Johnny Guitar steps into the bar, he is welcomed by a blast of total silence: a few croupiers standing at empty tables, a bar with nobody waiting at it. This saloon becomes the single location for the film’s first act, and until its final destructive moments, it rarely strays from the walls of the desolate building. Ray strips away the more matter-of-fact realism often found in traditional Westerns — which highlight the rugged harshness of the Old World — and replaces it with a hefty amount of melodramatic artifice.
This sense of artifice mostly can be found in the lucid colors that have come to define Johnny Guitar, the frequent deep reds and pinks that create a palette quite singular within the canon of classical Westerns. Not only does the artifice add to the melodramatic atmosphere, but it also adds to the film’s distinctive strangeness. Likewise, the characters here talk in a highly stylized and eccentric manner, and the charged, complex dramatic tension gives the film the feeling of a grand opera.
Despite the initial emptiness of the Saloon, before long the building is packed full with rowdy townsfolk, a mob that includes both the corrupt land baron John McIvers (an ever brilliant Ward Bond) and the evil, near-fascistic Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), who, more than anything else it seems, wants to run Vienna out of town. Both accuse Vienna of collaborating with the wanted criminal Dancin’ Kid, along with his gang, who has just been falsely accused of murdering Emma’s brother in a stagecoach hold up. Buried underneath this sensational event, however, are the two real reasons that the Kid faces such accusations: Emma’s repressed desire for the Kid’s unreturned affection (he’s actually in love with Vienna) and McIvers’ desire to own Vienna’s incredibly valuable land.
Ray acknowledges how both the desires for emotional and political control heavily influence each other, and he weaves these two thematic threads together to create not only a film of deep emotional power, but one that is fundamentally political in its depiction of mob justice, fascism, and the brutal legacy of American history. The central theme of mob justice and baseless, life-threatening accusations aren’t remotely subtle in how they relate to the time period. In fact, much of Johnny Guitar is incredibly unsubtle, so much so that the bluntness of the film’s political message, given what was happening in America when it was released, adds to the film’s strange, dreamlike nature. Emma’s speech toward the start of the third act even feels incredibly close to common fascist rhetoric: she venomously denounces the effectiveness of law and order and praises mob justice, claims that new farmers from the East looking for work will push out the townsfolk, and scaremongers her followers with claims that their families will be at risk of starvation.
But despite its highly charged politics, at the core of Johnny Guitar is the tangled web of unspoken desires that fuels the vitriolic aggression deep down inside each of its characters. The most potent of these relationships, and crucial to the film’s most heartbreaking moment, is the one between Vienna and Johnny — later revealed to be an infamous, trigger-happy (ex-) gunslinger — whose prior courtship, five years ago, ended on a sour note due to Johnny’s inability to commit to anything stable in his life.
Whilst the script for Johnny Guitar remains one of the greatest of its era — every word adds to the dramatic tension — Ray, a born expressionist, also tells this story almost entirely via only the facial expressions and eye movements of the characters, with the film’s standout, and most famous, moment being when Johnny pleads with Vienna to lie to him and tell her she still loves him, her face gently draped in shadow. Johnny’s dark past of violence, which remains solely explained through his own scattered acts of aggression, haunts the character like a ghost, an impression perfectly communicated by Sterling Hayden’s weary face. Hayden’s own guilt, caused by selling out colleagues to the HUAC, seems to manifest itself in this celluloid extension; both actor and character are burdened with a heavy shame.
Hayden’s often nonchalant expressions only heighten the fiery rage that burns so heavily in the eyes of Crawford and McCambridge, who were bitter rivals both on screen and off. Their introductory showdown — Emma, along with her mob, bursting into Vienna’s saloon as she stands on the balcony — forms the nucleus of the entire film, and is charged with enough latent psychosexual anger to take down the entire world. Much has been said of the relationship between these two characters, which, on the surface, looks like unbridled rage, yet often feels like an unspoken love so deeply repressed that it has manifested into something even darker than hatred.
But what perhaps stands out most from a modern vantage is Johnny Guitar’s queerness, which not only comes from the relationship between the characters or the camp theatrics of Joan Crawford’s impeccable line readings, but also in the dissembling of gender roles within the traditionally masculine Western genre. Crawford and McCambridge play characters who were then and largely still are mostly delegated to male actors; your Gary Coopers and Randolph Scotts. The roles of forgotten lovers and desired heartthrobs, meanwhile, are here left to the men. This reversal of gender dynamics, while not entirely uncommon in modern cinema, was seldom seen during this classical era of Hollywood, and it’s not hard to understand Johnny Guitar as one of the first to do it right. This boldness, taken with Ray’s heavily stylized aesthetics, results in a film that is not just one of the smartest and most unique of its era, but, without hyperbole, of all time.
Part of Kicking the Canon — The Film Canon.
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