Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 4/12/09 w/ Additional Edits.
Though beloved by Europeans and other film directors in the U.S., Nicholas Ray is considered by some an outsider of Hollywood. Even after his peak in the 1950s, he tried to get projects going but without Hollywood's support. It would be those in the French and German New Wave that would help bring attention to Ray's work throughout the years to a new generation of film buffs. Though Ray's death in 1979 was a huge loss, his legacy was still insatiable to film buffs and aspiring film directors. In 1954, Ray made a western that some considered to be one of his greatest films before the popularity of his 1955 film A Rebel Without A Cause.
Directed by Nicholas Ray based on Roy Chanslor's novel, Johnny Guitar tells the story of changing times in the Arizona cattle community in the Old West. With a screenplay by Phillip Yordan (and an un-credited Ben Maddow due to the blacklist of the 1950s), the film features a female protagonist, an oddity in the Western genre, as she fights authority against those threatening her saloon and town with help from an old lover. Starring Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Ernest Borgnine, Royal Dano, Scott Brady, Ben Cooper, Ward Bond, and Mercedes McCambridge. Johnny Guitar is a thrilling, melodramatic masterpiece from Nicholas Ray.
It's a windy day in an Arizona desert as a man named Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) arrives to a saloon outside of a cattle town. Inside the saloon, Johnny asks for whiskey and the saloon's boss who turns out to be a woman name Vienna (Joan Crawford). Vienna is currently in a meeting with Mr. Andrews (Rhys Williams) about the railroad building nearby her saloon. She is aware that with the railroad, her saloon will be booming with business along with a town set to be built that she'll share with the people working at her saloon. Then comes the arrival of Marshall Williams (Frank Ferguson) and cattle baron John McIvers (Ward Bond) as they bring the body of a dead man. The body is the brother of a woman named Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) who has deep hatred for Vienna.
Claiming that an associate of Vienna in the Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady) and his gang of hooligans were responsible for the death of Emma's brother. The Dancin' Kid and his gang arrive denying the whole affair as they ask Johnny Guitar who reveals that it couldn't be true. McIvers decided to ban gambling outside of the town as he gives Vienna a day to leave town. Vienna refuses as Johnny helps smooth things though he gets into a fight with one of the Dancin' Kid's men in Bart (Ernest Borgnine). When Johnny is revealed to be a master gunslinger after a duel of sorts with another of the Kid's men in Turkey (Ben Cooper). It's clear that Johnny has a past with Vienna as they were once lovers as he is hired to add protection from the angry cattlemen wanting to get rid of her. With the Dancin' Kid and his gang blamed for the death of Emma's brother, they decide to leave town but rob the bank first in order to get attention.
At the day of the robbery, Vienna is there getting her money out as they arrive minutes after her arrival. Yet, Vienna tries to get the Kid to not rob the bank but he and the gang leave to try to go to California. Instead, things go wrong due to explosions at the mountains that leaves Turkey wounded as the Kid is forced to leave Turkey behind. After paying off several of her employees to leave, Johnny reluctantly leaves as Emma, McIver, and the Marshall with their posse arrive to find the wounded Turkey under a table. After Vienna's employee Tom (John Carradine) tried to save her, Vienna and Turkey are taken where they're to be hanged. Johnny saves Vienna as the two hide out at the Kid's hiding place where the Kid, Bart, and Corey (Royal Dano) are hiding as well. With Johnny's real identity is revealed, things go wrong when Emma finds the hideout as she challenges Vienna to a duel.
While having a female lead instead of a male for the western genre in the 1950s seems radical. Yet, screenwriters Phillip Yordan and Ben Maddow, and director Nicholas Ray creates a western that is unique while playing around with its structure. Notably the ideas of conflict, bank robberies, and of course, a climatic duel at the end. What Yordan, Maddow, and Ray went for to make this film seem unconventional is the sense of melodrama as well as some political commentary that was going on in the McCarthy era. The story is simple. A woman runs a saloon by herself hoping to make some big money once the railroad comes in near her saloon. Yet, the nearby town where she has her money in a bank account seems threatened by it since they won't get a share of the money.
While the script delves into its political commentary through stylish dialogue and conflict between Vienna and the cattlemen. It's the direction of Nicholas Ray that is unique as it's told through melodrama. In the westerns, men are often the dominant figures in that genre. What Ray does is have the women take charge and they're not likeable women. Vienna is first scene where pants and shirt with a gun belt around her waist where she's often shown with a scowl on her face. She rarely displays any kind of emotions except when she's dealing with her past with Johnny. Then there's Emma, a woman who is mean as a bull as her hatred of Emma is more personal than anything. For all the men around her, they are shocked by her anger and can't really comprehend anything.
The film's unconventional approach towards its idea of protagonist and antagonist with its title character really being a supporting role is quite startling. At the same time, it's not a western but rather a melodrama that revolves around Johnny's return to Vienna's life as well as the Kid's feelings for Vienna. It's later revealed that Emma has a thing for the Kid but doesn't want to admit it. In many ways, what Nicholas Ray does is a real deconstruction of what is known traditionally as the western. It's lack of realism in place of melodrama is what makes the film so entrancing to watch as if they're all doing theater while the men have more talents than just being gunslingers. Overall, it's fantastic work from Nicholas Ray.
Cinematographer Harry Stradling does fantastic work with the film's colorful, Trucolor photography style. Awash with amazing colors in its exterior settings of the day and night to the interior shots of the saloon where it's wonderfully lit. Even in a shot where Joan Crawford is where white against a yellowish backdrop to represent the good girl with Mercedes McCambridge in black. Another great shot revolves a scene in the cave that awash with red that matches the shirt that Crawford was wearing. Stradling's photography, notably a shot of the Arizona skyline is truly rich in its elegance and ode to melodrama. Editor Richard L. Van Enger does excellent work with the smooth transitions, dissolves, and fade-outs to help play with the structure and movement of the film. Even for the film's suspenseful and climatic duel between Vienna and Emma as it plays to a rhythm. The editing is really masterfully crafted.
The art direction by James W. Sullivan with set decoration by Edward G. Boyle and John McCarthy Jr. is great in the look of the saloon as there's a sophistication and ruggedness to its look. Even as it features a mountain/cave-like wall where it adds an authenticity to its look and feel. Costume designer Sheila O'Brien does great work in the look of the clothes, notably the women where the character of Emma wears dark dresses throughout the entirety of the film while Vienna wears jeans and pants half the time for her mean persona. Then when she has to play lady, she wears this wonderful, flowing white dress to represent her good girl persona, though she is a bitch at times. The sound work by T.A. Carman and Howard Wilson is excellent for its sound locations, gunshots, horse calls, and runs to play up to the energy of the western. The music by Victor Young is brilliant for its sweeping arrangements of its energetic, suspenseful music while going somber into its more melodramatic scenes. The title song at the end by Young and Peggy Lee is great in playing up to the romanticism of the film.
The cast is excellent as it includes a then-unknown Dennis Hopper making his film debut (though un-credited). In the roles of Vienna's men which include Paul Fix as roulette spinner Eddie, John Carradine as saloon manager Tom, and Rhys Williams as businessman Mr. Andrews are all excellent in their small roles. Royal Dano is excellent as the sickly Corey while Ben Cooper is really good as the young, naive Turkey. Ward Bond is great as Mr. McIvers, the cattle baron who wants to get rid of Vienna from his town while Frank Ferguson is good as the more sympathetic Marshall who is trying to keep the peace. Ernest Borgnine is superb as the greedy, rugged Bart, a man who is more concerned with money and survival than teamwork. Scott Brady is very good as the Dancin' Kid, a man who loves Vienna while deciding to lead a robbery to get attention only to land himself in trouble and face betrayal.
Mercedes McCambridge is brilliant as the tough, angry Emma, a woman who has deep hatred for Vienna as she takes charge in leading a revolt towards the saloon owner. McCambridge's performance truly embodies the role of a villain as she can be brutal and so evil that only she can match Joan Crawford in a bitch fight. Though the truth is that both McCambridge and Crawford really hated each other on and off the set. Sterling Hayden is great as the title character Johnny Guitar, a man who is hired to protect Vienna though is dealing with his own past and love for Vienna. Hayden is very restrained yet compassionate in his role as he has great scenes with Crawford though off the set, he wasn't saying kind things towards Crawford. Finally, there's the brilliant though infamous Joan Crawford. Playing a character that is sexually ambiguous where she acts like a lady and at times, dresses like a man. She is a woman who is tough both in business and as a person. Yet, she displays a vulnerability in dealing with her feelings for Johnny while dealing with the Dancin' Kid's feeling for her. It's a brilliant role for the actress who is known more for her personal life than her acting though it's clear that this is one of her great film roles.
When it was released in 1954, the film received mixed reviews from critics in the U.S. A release later on in Europe, notably France, drew rave reviews with critics and aspiring filmmakers. The film proved to be influential to the French New Wave as well as other directors including Italy's Sergio Leone. In 1988, famed Spanish director Pedro Almodovar made references to the film for his international breakthrough hit Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) both as a plot device and as a conflict between its protagonist and antagonist. The film would later be considered a classic of American cinema as in 2008, the film was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry.
Johnny Guitar is an exciting, stylish, and melodramatic masterpiece from Nicholas Ray. Featuring superb performances from Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, and Ernest Borgnine. It's a film that definitely lives up to its reputation of heightened drama as well as its deconstruction of the western genre itself. While Rebel Without a Cause might be Ray's most well-known film, it's Johnny Guitar that is the film that gives Ray the cinematic reputation he received among film buffs. In the end, for a western that is unconventional and with a dramatic flair that is unique. Johnny Guitar is the film to see from the late, great Nicholas Ray.
Nicholas Ray Films: (They Live By Night) - (Knock on Any Door) - (A Woman's Secret) - In a Lonely Place - (Born to Be Bad) - (Flying Leathernecks) - (On Dangerous Ground) - (The Lusty Men) - (Run for Cover) - Rebel Without a Cause - (Hot Blood) - (Bigger Than Life) - (The True Story of Jesse James) - (Bitter Victory) - (Wind Across the Everglades) - (Party Girl) - (The Savage Innocents) - (King of Kings) - (55 Days at Peking) - (We Can't Go Home Again) - (Lightning Over Water)
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