Saturday, March 13, 2021

#2,538. Johnny Guitar (1954) - The Films of Nicholas Ray


Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar is a western, but it is also not a western.

What I mean is, the movie has all the tropes one would normally associate with the genre: the period setting, the vast landscapes, gunfighters, shoot-outs, etc., etc. 

But it is a movie that centers more on passion (both love and hate) than it does action or adventure, and its characters are not your typical western heroes and villains. In fact, they’re all a little of both; we cheer for them one minute, pray they’ll get their comeuppance the next. Yet we hang on their every word, their every exchange, and by the time Johnny Guitar is over, we are as emotionally drained as those characters lucky enough to escape with their lives.

Joan Crawford plays Vienna, owner of a casino / saloon on the outskirts of a dusty Arizona town. Vienna’s place may not be packing them in just yet, but with the railroad planning to lay down track in her front yard, she knows it’s only a matter of time before she will be a very wealthy woman.

Vienna does have one problem, though: the locals, led by rancher Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) and community leader John McIvers (Ward Bond), are doing everything in their power to put her out of business. In fact, Emma - fueled by her veiled feelings for Vienna’s former lover The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) - so detests Vienna that she wants to see her dead!

Enter Johnny (Sterling Hayden), a cowboy who would rather carry his guitar than a six-shooter. Vienna claims she hired Johnny to perform at her Saloon, but it soon becomes clear that there’s more to this mysterious stranger than meets the eye.

Like many westerns, Johnny Guitar makes great use of its main locale; some scenes were obviously done in studio with a backdrop, yet enough were shot in the hills and valleys of Arizona to give the movie an authentic western vibe.

The performances are also stellar, especially Joan Crawford, who brings a likability to what could have easily been a very unlikable character. A former prostitute with a shady past, Vienna shows an unwavering determination to see her dreams come true, no matter the cost. Crawford’s verbal spats with the also-excellent McCambridge have a real power to them (further enhanced, no doubt, by the fact the two actresses loathed one another in real life).

As for the guys, Hayden and Brady do a fine job playing men of questionable character, whose affections for Vienna put them at odds with one another; and the always-reliable Ernest Borgnine is pitch-perfect as Bart, a member of the Kid’s gang nobody seems to trust (not even the Kid). Yet as good as the men are (including Ward Bond, John Carradine, Royal Dano, and Ben Cooper), it’s Crawford and McCambridge who take center stage, and give the film its raw energy.

Toss in some very memorable scenes (including one of the more intense hanging sequences you’re likely to come across), the sharp direction of Nicholas Ray, and the crisp dialogue of screenwriter Philip Yordan (there’s a romantic give-and-take between Vienna and Johnny that’s pure gold), and you have a western that, though it may not fit neatly into the genre, stands as one of the finest of the 1950s.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

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