Johnny Guitar review by Trylon volunteer Geoffrey Stueven.
This month we’re celebrating director Nicholas Ray as an outsider, and his 1954 Western Johnny Guitar gives us a title character who looks, at least in the opening minutes, like a worthy stand-in for the director. There goes Johnny (Sterling Hayden) on his horse, fresh from Albuquerqu (no “e”), drifting across a rocky outcrop of Nowhere, N.M., ignoring a stagecoach robbery, a guitar strapped to his back where a rifle should be. But soon he arrives at the saloon owned by Joan Crawford’s Vienna and backstory unfurls with the weight and velocity of a classic noir. When Johnny and Vienna talk about their romantic past and exchange a series of supposes (“What do you suppose would happen if this man came back?” Johnny asks, referring to himself—I fully expect him to tear off a mask and reveal Fred MacMurray or Humphrey Bogart), all this makes us wonder briefly if Ray isn’t just giving us a noir dressed up as a Western. But, no, the point here is that even in the lawless, empty West, no one stays an outsider for long, or even arrives as one.
A mob, still working its way up to Ox-Bow Incident levels of hysteria, shows up at Vienna’s, making accusations concerning that earlier stagecoach robbery, and Johnny enters a situation he naively thought he could avoid. What follows is a magnificent, complicated, and very long interior scene that takes in a huge number of characters and gradually exits them, revealing their alignments and setting up conflicts, line by line and gesture by gesture. The way Johnny, still an unknown quantity, embeds himself in the scene by catching a falling shot glass is only the most potent example of Ray’s subtle handling of the material. Imagine this scene reshot by Sergio Leone and that shot glass might fall for minutes, but the weight of every movement and word, in Ray’s hands, registers no less.
Upon Johnny’s announcement of himself, we learn he has an itchy trigger finger but he’s traded his gun for a guitar, i.e., the safer distance of art? And if he knew what becomes of cowboys by the time Kirk Douglas makes one final, tragic pass through Albuquerque in 1962’s masterful Lonely Are the Brave, he’d keep his peace, his art. But sadly he’s got history, specifically with Vienna, who, if I didn’t already mention it, is played by the awesome Joan Crawford in an amazing sequence of brightly colored outfits.
She’s the misplaced star of this movie, whose weirdly inappropriate title heightens rather than hides its real subject and interest: the way an actual outsider (a woman) might exert influence in a hostile world. Vienna would prefer not to divulge this lurid history (“we exchanged confidences”; “luck had nothing to do with it”), and the movie remains fairly pessimistic on the subject of women and power, even as it features, with a total absence of the camp appeal I vaguely remember it containing, two astonishing and fearsome performances by women: Crawford and, as her arch nemesis Emma, the delightfully cruel Mercedes McCambridge. You see, there’s only room for one, if even. It’s a dispiriting message, one that causes Vienna to intone, to Johnny, “It must be a great comfort to you to be a man.” Yes, and at the end Peggy Lee will sing “Johnny Guitar (Love Theme)”.
Geoffrey Stueven recently returned from Albuquerque to his troubled Minneapolis backstory. He writes about music at The Big Takeover and enjoys a good movie from time to time.
Johnny Guitar screens Monday and Tuesday at 7:00 & 9:15. Purchase tickets here.