Johnny Guitar (1954)

“There’s only two things in this world that a ‘real man’ needs: a cup of coffee and a good smoke.”

‘Johnny Guitar’, directed by Nicholas Ray in 1954, is an American western starring Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden and Mercedes McCambridge. Crawford plays Vienna, the owner of a small casino that is on the verge of becoming successful once a built railroad is built. She has made enemies with the local town who oppose the railroad and because of her acceptance of a criminal gang. Hayden plays the title character, Vienna’s ex-partner and an ex-gunslinger. Meanwhile, McCambridge’s character Emma Small is carrying out a vendetta against Vienna and leads the locals against her with explosive consequences. On the surface it’s a fairly standard plot, what stands out immediately is the central roles occupied by Crawford and McCambridge, a dynamic that brings the vitriolic relationship between Crawford and Bette Davis in ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ eight years later. Despite the title of the film and the role Johnny plays in saving Vienna and smuggling her to safety, it is the two women that fully drive the narrative. The second thing that draws attention is the sparse, shoestring look to the film, the action taking place in very few locations. This gives the movie a stylised, almost theatrical look, in contrast with the western movies of John Ford such as ‘The Searchers’. The western plot also conceals a brave political allegory as, in one striking pivotal scene in which the locals break in to the casino, the fate of Vienna and the gang she hosts mirrors the HUAC hearings in Hollywood that were taking place as the film was made. It’s a deceptively simple movie that masks a labyrinth of politically and sexually subversive subtexts.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s a demonstration of how the western genre can be pushed into becoming something more complex. Watch in a double bill with a similarly complex western: ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ or ‘Salt of the Earth‘ for another movie about HUAC – although more directly – from the same year.


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