These notes on Johnny Guitar were written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Johnny Guitar will screen on Friday, April 15, 7 p.m., at the Cinemtheque's regular space, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is Free!
By Tim Brayton
“I’m a stranger here myself,” demurs Sterling Hayden at one point in his performance as the title character (though not, we must quickly clarify, the protagonist) of the 1954 Johnny Guitar, a revisionist Western from before they were called revisionist Westerns. It’s a line that resonated strongly with the film’s director, Nicholas Ray, five years and nine features into his legendary career: according to rumor, it was his personal motto and the working title for a great many of his projects, and in 1975 it was used as the title for a documentary about the director. And it perfectly describes the content of so many of his best known and most beloved films: Ray’s movies are full of outcasts, misfits, and oddballs, people who are figuratively as well as literally strangers in the places they find themselves, from the thrill-seeking lovers of his 1948 crime thriller debut They Live By Night to the teenage lost souls of the 1955 juvenile delinquency classic Rebel Without a Cause – even his 1961 “life of Jesus” epic King of Kings.
But Johnny Guitar might just have the oddest oddballs and loneliest outcasts of them all. Like so many Westerns of every era, it’s focused in large part on the tensions between the frontier and the “civilization” it borders. Vienna, the saloonkeeper played by Joan Crawford in one of the greatest, most multilayered performances of her legendary career, is the typical all-American frontier libertarian, looking to set her own rules for how to live in the little autonomous society of outlaws and ruffians she’s built for herself, no matter what the hypocritical townsfolk and cattle ranchers have to say about it. The story (adapted by Philip Yordan from Roy Chanslor’s novel) kicks off when the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), a friend (and then some!) of Vienna’s, is accused of killing the brother of local moral scold Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), and the stage is set for a showdown between the self-appointed “Nice People” and the people who are actually good, as we’ve seen so many times in this genre.
But those offbeat touches are already making themselves clear: most obviously, our tough man’s man of a frontier entrepreneur this time around is a woman, and Johnny Guitar is going to play that gender-bending scenario for everything it’s worth. The film has no use for subtext: practically the first thing we ever learn about Vienna is that her masculine affect discomforts the men of the region, and our first glimpse of Crawford in the rather severe trousers crafted for her by costume designer Sheila O’Brien leaves very little doubt that Johnny Guitar will be complicated and outright contradicting gender norms at every turn. That’s part of the story, of course: Vienna’s grip on her frontier kingdom is all the more tenuous because of how defiantly, proudly antisocial she must be simply to have risen to such heights as a woman. But it’s a big part of what makes the film itself so shocking: for a film made in the heart of the 1950s to be this interested in positively depicting masculinized women and, in Hayden’s Johnny, femininized men, goes against every expectation we might have about that buttoned-up period of filmmaking, where this kind of transgression typically had to be smuggled in below the surface. Heck, in sketching out the emotional currents driving the unreasonably hostile relationship between Vienna and Emma (given extra charge by the open warfare on set between Crawford and McCambridge; pretty much everybody hated everybody on this production, especially the notoriously volatile Hayden and Crawford), Johnny Guitar comes astonishingly close to presenting an explicitly homoerotic tension, making Vienna, with her well-stocked supply of ex-boyfriends, perhaps the closest thing we get to an openly bisexual female character in ‘50s American cinema.
Its shockingly casual subversion of gender and sexuality norms is just one of the ways that Johnny Guitar creates that characteristically Ray-esque feeling of being locked outside of society, and maybe even preferring it that way. Take Johnny Guitar himself; not so aggressive a character as Vienna, but there are plenty of ways in which he goes against the grain of what we expect from the lonely hero of a Western, not least of which is that he isn’t really the hero, as it turns out. We have here something of a parody of the figure of the lone gunslinger: you can probably guess from the character’s sobriquet what instrument Hayden carries strapped behind him in place of the more familiar six shooters. Part of this is just to make him an appropriate counterpart to the masculine Vienna, but even before we’ve met her, the sheer oddness that the character of Johnny strikes visually tells us plenty about this offbeat man, who stands outside of the society he moves through (“I’m a stranger here myself”), and who stands as well outside all of our expectations for the title character of a Western, a stranger come to a frontier town with a crisis on its hands.
Another key example of the film’s portrayal of life outside of norms and conventions is Vienna’s saloon itself, surely one of the very strangest locations in all of Western cinema. It’s not obvious right from the start, but this is a singularly impossible space: half Old West cliché with the bar and the chandeliers and the swinging doors and all, half naked bare rock cavern, as though Vienna’s place is so perfectly positioned on the line between civilization and wilderness that the division occurs right there in the middle of her building. It’s an image almost as bold and striking as Vienna’s outfits, and does just as much to give Johnny Guitar that wonderfully odd feeling. Even something as basic as the film stock gives the film a sense of being “off” in some way: this was shot in Trucolor, the color film process favored by Republic and generally disregarded by everybody else, considering its muddy green hues to give a poor rendering of anything close to reality (or being visually appealing in its own right). Watching Johnny Guitar, you’ll probably find that Trucolor’s notorious reputation is earned, but no film ever turned that limitation to greater advantage than this: it’s just one more way that Ray and his cast and crew give us a film that seems to exist purely to spite “the right way” of doing things. The result is one of the strangest Westerns you’re ever apt to see, but all the more exciting and bracing because of it; it’s an underseen triumph of its genre and a real contender for being the very best film of Ray’s outstanding career.