Saturday, February 4, 2017

Serious Weirdness in the Wild West: Johnny Guitar (1954)

directed by Nicholas Ray
script by Ben Maddow
from a book by Roy Chanslor
"Down there I sell whiskey and cards. All you can buy up these stairs is a bullet in the head."
After watching a stagecoach get robbed and a passenger murdered, a stranger rides up to a lonely saloon in the Arizona countryside. That could be the beginning of your standard Western. In the case of Johnny Guitar, starring Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, and Mercedes McCambridge there is nothing anywhere near close to standard.

Most of the time, seeing Sterling Hayden (in real life he had captained a schooner from Gloucester to Tahiti and served in the OSS and shuttled guns to Tito and parachuted into Croatia) in the credits implies he going will be the star of a movie, and his rumbling voice and smoldering masculinity will be at the heart of the picture. Hell, the movie's even named for his guitar toting character. Not here. 

Instead, it's around Joan Crawford's steely, dehumanized ex-saloon girl, Vienna, and Mercedes McCambridge's bug-eyed Emma Small around whom Johnny Guitar spins. It is a bonkers allegory of the McCarthy days and tale of sublimated lust. Crawford and McCambridge dominated the story and every scene they're in, relegating everything else to background noise. Sterling Hayden as Johnny Guitar and Scott Brady as outlaw, the Dancin' Kid, more often than not, merely kibitz from the sidelines and snap at each other as they compete for Vienna's icy affections.

Joan Crawford striding
I first heard about Johnny Guitar when I read that its basic plot was lifted by Sergio Leone for his epic Western-to-end-all-Westerns, Once Upon a Time in the West. In both cases, a character has gambled everything they have to build a town where the railroad is expected to come through in the near future. Other than that both are color-saturated phantasmagorical takes on the genre, the two films are as different as chalk and cheese.

Vienna's casino exists on the apparent edge of nowhere, someplace "outside of town." She and her staff pass each day spinning the roulette wheel because she likes "to hear it spinning," waiting for the railroad's arrival.

Into her customer-less establishment rides Johnny Guitar summoned by Vienna for purposes unknown.
Barkeep: What's your pleasure?
Johnny G.: Whiskey. Where's the boss?
Barkeep: Who's asking?
Johnny G.: Name is Johnny...Guitar.
Barkeep: So?
Johnny G.: I have an appointment with Vienna.
Barkeep: Vienna's busy. You'll have to wait.
Only a few minutes later a posse barges its way into the casino, carrying a body. At the center of the gang is a small, short-haired woman dressed in green. She's Emma Small, and the dead man is her brother. She claims he was murdered by the Dancin' Kid and Vienna's hiding him. The hatred between Emma and Vienna (mirrored in real life between the two actresses) comes across like beams of fire being shot out of their eyes. It becomes clear quickly, there's more going on than just a hunt for justice or revenge.

Watching the scene, it's clear Emma is nearly as fired up over Vienna as by the Dancin' Kid. Even if you take the exchange just at face value, every line is ramped up way past eleven. The look on Vienna's face as she stares down at her enemies looks more appropriate for a horror movie than a Western. 

Meanwhile, Johnny pauses eating from some delicate blue and white china, takes in the weirdness and, like the audience, ponders what the heck is really going on.

A few minutes later, the Dancin' Kid arrives. His three man gang is played by Ernest Borgnine (a year away from winning an Academy Award for Marty), the great character actor Royal Dano, and a youthful Ben Cooper. It seems inevitable bloody death is about to be unleashed, but it doesn't come.

At this stage in the story, the marshall still holds some power. When the witness admits he can't identify who held up the stage and killed Emma's brother and the Kid and his crew provide a reasonable alibi, the marshall's able to send the posse on its way. Before he leaves though, Mayor McIvers tells Vienna he's just outlawed drinking and gambling outside the town limits. She's got twenty-four hours to close up shop or else. The violence has only been postponed. It will be delivered.

Vienna and the Dancin' Kid vs. the Posse
Johnny Guitar looks like no other Western I can think of. It might be the most art-directed one ever. The interior of Vienna's casino is so fake looking it can't be unintentional. We never see anything of the town besides the front and inside of the bank. The showdown takes place around a solitary house on top of a hill. It looks more like a stage production than one that was actually filmed on location in Sedona, Arizona. 

While the men are dressed in standard Western gear, both women are costumed in over-the-top getups. They don't look like ordinary people, but unworldly creatures fighting it out among mere mortals. You will never forget Crawford's first appearance in brown slacks, black shirt, and teal tie. Later, her yellow shirt practically throbs on the screen. Most women in Westerns are either frontier wives or saloon hall slatterns. Just from the look of her, you know Vienna is neither of those and will kick your ass if you run afoul of her. 

Her eyebrows exaggerated, crimson lipstick, and dressed in severe, mannish slacks and shirts, Vienna seems almost without gender for much of the movie. She looks to have unsexed herself like Lady MacBeth in order to achieve her aims.

Lady in White
Late in the film, while waiting for the posse to take her, Vienna dresses in a giant white dress. At the same time, Emma goes into the final showdown in her mourning dress. Why settle for white and black hats when you can have a whole dress?

Lady in Black
Crawford's reputation as an actress has suffered since her death in 1977. Instead of one of the greatest leading women in Hollywood history, between the lamentable Mommie, Dearest and her penchant for harshly-applied makeup, she's been turned into some drag icon, and it's a shame. 

Her performance in Johnny Guitar is fantastic. Despite the arch, often campy dialogue, she's a utterly believable and captivating as a woman possessed of implacable willpower fighting for a dream. At the same time, she's in love and has to struggle against letting her feelings for Johnny swamp her plans. The other actors are all good, too, but none have the power of Crawford. 

McCambridge is all bristling, viciousness and rage. Though straight, she had a reputation for playing butch characters, having won an Academy Award for such a role in All the King's Men (1949). Here, she's pushed to her limits and to the limit of the stereotype of the hyper-butch woman. The men of the town cower before her, bending to nearly every one of her demands. She burst of searing, black flames, generating waves of hatred that prove irresistible to the men of the town driving them to do things it's clear they have no real heart for. 

Emma Small and her pack of capons
Hayden is the model of tough guy cool. He never shouts or yells, and never threatens, but you know what kind of guy he really is. In this scene, he walks between the Dancin' Kid and the posse and just sort shuts them both down without a drop of obvious menace or a bit of fear.

Among the minor players, Ernest Borgnine as the thuggish Bart Lonergan and Ben Cooper as the lovestruck kid, Turkey, are splendid. John Carradine is fine as the sweet-natured Old Tom, another man hopelessly caught up in Vienna's orbit by unrequited love.

Johnny Guitar is so far afield from the standard Western, so much stranger than even the weirdest Spaghetti Westerns, that it's almost possible to not classify it as a Western at all. That's one of the great things about Westerns, which I pointed out in my introductory essay: Westerns can be anything, even an insane story of powerful men, jealous gunslingers, and compliant mobs.

Rating - A: There's nothing else like this in the annals of Western filmmaking. For first time viewers, throw out any expectations, and just sit back and watch a masterpiece of lunacy that's equally serious and high camp.

Johnny Guitar's Historical Location

It's never really clear where the film's set, but it was filmed in Sedona, Arizona. Here's a great article from Sedona Monthly about filming the movie.

Rating System
A: Ace - Brilliant or groundbreaking; one of the best that no fan should miss.
B: Bravo - Good stuff, but less than perfection
C: Cowpoke - Routine oater, filler
D: Dismal - Sloppy or junky, but either way not worth the runtime

Next time: Enter Clint Eastwood in the self-directed apocalyptic revenge Western, High Plains Drifter (1973).

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