JOHNNY GUITAR has been called everything from a feminist statement to a gay camp-classic to an anti-McCarthyism allegory. While it certainly is all of these--and more--it's about time it was acclaimed for it what it really is: a genuine western film classic.
Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) travels to a saloon owned by his former lover, Vienna (Joan Crawford). Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), a vindictive woman who has designs on Vienna's land, joins with a posse, headed by John McIvers (Ward Bond), to accuse Vienna of being in on a stagecoach job
with a gang led by the Dancin' Kid. Both Vienna and the Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady) deny they had anything to do with the robbery, but Emma urges the Marshal to arrest them anyway. McIvers gives Vienna and the gang 24 hours to get out of town. The Dancin' Kid and his gang decide to head out, but
Vienna tells Johnny she's staying. The next morning, Vienna goes to the bank to close her account, and finds herself in the middle of a heist engineered by the Kid and his gang. Emma insists that Vienna was behind the job. After one of the Kid's gang members is coerced into testifying that Vienna
did participate, she is set to hang for a crime she did not commit.
When it was first released in 1954, most critics dismissed JOHNNY GUITAR as being nothing more than a ridiculous Republic potboiler, which isn't surprising given that it was probably the first western to be set in the land of the imagination. It took critics such as Jean-Luc Godard and Francois
Truffaut (who called the film "beautiful and profound") to recognize that Nicholas Ray's film was a dreamlike and deliriously styilized piece masquerading as a typical shoot-em-up. Ray called the novel by Roy Chanslor (who later wrote Cat Ballou) "completely valueless," and he and writer Philip
Yordan used the plot's bare bones to create a baroque, operatic and symbolic tale of l'amour fou and Freudian psychology.
The much maligned Crawford actually acquits herself quite well--all bulging black eyes, thick red lips and steel jaw. As her nemesis, McCambridge is brilliant, portraying Emma as a sexually frustrated butch lesbian who trembles with orgasmic glee watching Vienna's place burn down. And as the
laconic Johnny, Hayden is magnificent, playing the role with tongue in cheek but never condescendingly so. With its twisted sexual dynamics, surreal color photography, expressionistic Frank Lloyd Wright-like sets, and haunting score by Victor Young, JOHNNY GUITAR is a one-of-a-kind experience.
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