Nicolas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, released in 1954,
has to be the weirdest western made before Blazing Saddles. Stagy and talkie, it’s filled with outrageous dialog and fanciful names (Johnny Guitar, the Dancin’ Kid). The women behave like men in a conventional western, and the men act kind of like traditional women.
Sterling Hayden plays the title character, but the real hero is Vienna (Joan Crawford), the owner of a saloon in the middle of nowhere. She knows that the train will go right through her property and eventually make her rich.
Make no mistake about it; Vienna is the boss. She expects total obedience from her employees (all male). She orders one to keep spinning the roulette wheel, even though there are no customers, “because I like it.”
But Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) hates Vienna and wants her out of town or, better yet, dead. They’re both businesswomen, and they both carry guns. The very wealthy Emma wants to own Vienna’s soon-to-be-valuable business, but their personal hate seems to go beyond that. The film never explains why.
Many people see a lesbian subtext here, based on the stereotype that a very strong woman must be gay. McCambridge plays Emma in a very butch style. Perhaps she hates Vienna because she can’t have her.
Vienna has clearly slept around. Johnny is a former lover of hers, returning after years, and he still pines for her. “How many men have you forgotten” he asks. She responds “As many women as you’ve remembered.” He begs her to lie: “Tell me you still love me like I love you.”
Not that Johnny Guitar is a nobody. Not only does he play a mean guitar, but he has all the western hero virtues. He’s good with his fists and, if need be, fast with a gun. But he also deflects a fight by waxing philosophically. “You know, some men got the craving for gold and silver. Others need lotsa’ land, with herds of cattle. And then there’s those that got the weakness for whiskey, and for women. When you boil it all down, what does a man really need? Just a smoke and a cup of coffee.”
For much of the movie, Emma leads a lynch party out to hang Vienna. They’re coming from a funeral–an excuse to have them all wearing black. She’s the only woman in the group, and the men in the mob slowly turn away for her thirst for violence–a reversal of the usual western rules, where the women try unsuccessfully to stop the killings.
The cheapskate Republic Pictures made Johnny Guitar. The company was willing to pay for a strong supporting cast, which includes Ward Bond, Ernest Borgnine, and John Carradine. But the film is marred by cheap production methods. Exterior backgrounds are often obviously painted. Shots don’t always match. One scene cuts back and forth between location shots filmed in bright daylight and soundstage work with a studio-created sunset.
Johnny Guitar is about as realistic as an opera. But like an opera, the stylization is part of the art. Philip Yordan’s screenplay (based on Roy Chanslor’s novel) and Ray’s direction make it something strange, unusual, fun, and just possibly great.
How It Looks
The film’s credits tell us that Johnny Guitar is in “Trucolor by Consolidated.” According to Wikipedia, it was actually shot on Kodak’s then-new Eastman Color Negative stock.
Olive’s AVC 1080p transfer is pillar-boxed to the pre-widescreen 1.37 aspect ratio. Whether that’s the optimum ratio for Johnny Guitar is difficult to say. It’s certainly one of the right aspect ratios. Non-Cinemascope films from 1954 were shot with the knowledge that they’d be shown in all sorts of shapes. This video about On the Waterfront (also from 1954) explains the issues. Personally, I think the film would have looked better cropped to 1.66.
Aside from aspect ratio issues, I found the transfer disappointing. At times it looked soft. I saw digital artifacts at least once. Most of the time it was acceptable, and occasionally very good. Considering the cheap production values and the early use of color film (which was very unstable in those days), I suspect that Olive did not have great sources to work from.
That may change soon. Park Circus has a new 4K restoration.
How It Sounds
Olive replicates the original mono soundtrack in DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. No complaints.
And the Extras
Introduction by Martin Scorsese: 3 minutes. 480i. The great director clearly loves what he calls “one of cinema’s great operatic works.” Among other things, he talks about the film’s influence on the young, French film critics who would soon become filmmakers and create the New Wave.