To say Nicholas Ray’s 1954 Western Johnny Guitar is an unconventional addition to the genre is an understatement. It may be the weirdest Western ever made in this country, a veritable opera of repressed sexuality, and, accepting its cult reputation, a thinly veiled assault on the Inquisition mentality of Senator Joseph McCarthy and HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee). But regardless of how one interprets the rampant symbolism that director Ray and screenwriter Philip Yordan have loaded this film with, it’s still one of the best B-movies of the `50s. There is even a Johnny Guitar society, complete with a Web site that features clips and quotes from the likes of Martin Scorsese and Francois Truffaut, who swore an almost religious allegiance to Ray’s Western jaw-dropper.
The film stars a extremely mannish, drag-queen-looking Joan Crawford as Vienna, a tough-as-nails saloon owner who is waiting for the coming railroad to reach her deserted saloon so she can build her dream depot and cash in. But the townspeople, led by Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) and McIvers (Ward Bond), don’t much like Vienna. In fact, Emma hates Vienna, who has stolen the heart of bad boy, the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), a silver miner and would-be hot shot who Emma lusts after. But when Emma’s banker brother is killed in a stage robbery, she blames the Dancin’ Kid and his gang. Into this mix comes Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), nee Johnny Logan, ex- gunfighter of legend who has hung up his revolver for a six string. Vienna hires Johnny not only for his prowess with a gun, but also to revive their once hot romance (igniting the jealousies of Dancin’ Kid).
McIvers and Emma give the Kid and his gang 24 hours to get (and when they get, they better be taking Vienna with them). Figuring that since Emma and McIvers think he’s a crook anyway, the Kid and his gang decide to rob Emma’s brothers’ bank on the way out of town. As luck has it, Vienna and Johnny are getting Vienna’s money out of the bank just as the Kid hits it. Returning from her brother’s funeral, Emma and McIvers form a posse to capture and hang Vienna, the Dancin’ Kid and his gang. When the youngest of the Kid’s gang – Turkey (Ben Cooper) – gets whacked in the face by a tree branch and knocked off his horse, the gang, under the advice of the memorably sadistic Bart (Ernest Borgnine), leaves Turkey behind. Injured, he goes to Vienna’s, but is soon discovered by Emma’s posse. Under interrogation, Emma (now twitching with anticipation of a hanging) makes Turkey name Vienna as an accomplice in their gang to avoid a necktie party. He complies but hangs anyway (Dang it!). Johnny saves Vienna from a similar fate, but nothing can stop the final showdown between Emma, Vienna and the Dancin’ Kid at the Kid’s secluded hideout.
Johnny Guitar was shot in a color process called “Trucolor,” which gives the film a color-saturated look that may remind some of those home movies where outdoor scenes seemed culled from a surreal plane of heightened reality. A remarkably contemporary looking film, director Jim Jarmusch has said (accurately) that it is the only Western that looks like it was shot inside a `50s ski lodge. The acting proves similarly impressive; Crawford takes on her role as if it was an extension of her matriarchal role in Mildred Pierce, and McCambridge is extraordinary. By film’s end, she is positively jittery with sexual repression and blood lust (“He makes her feel like a woman,” Vienna says about the Dancin’ Kid and Emma, “and that scares her.”). In a decade in which directors like the great Sam Fuller mined some pretty Freudian territory in low budget film, this is still pretty gutsy stuff, and a whale of an entertaining film.