This is REKT, the column where each month one Cinepunx staffer recommends films to the rest of the fam. We may be stoked, or we may be wrecked. This month, it’s Trey Lawson’s turn to do the damage. Here are Elbee‘s thoughts on Johnny Guitar.
Admittedly, I may be cheating a little bit by picking this movie. We’re supposed to choose films from the recommendation list that we haven’t seen, or that we have seen and need to re-evaluate, and Johnny Guitar falls into neither for me. But I did watch it only recently, to widen my knowledge of westerns for an episode of my podcast Get A Clu!, so I don’t think I’m straying from the rules too far. To that end, though, I’ll go ahead and say I fell completely in love with this movie, and was ecstatic when I saw it appear on Trey’s list this month.
I had always heard of Johnny Guitar, and I knew a few of my friends really liked it. I had seen stills from it which, not to exaggerate, always took my breath away. Joan Crawford, both beautiful and handsome (in the way they used to refer to ladies), standing tall in glorious “Trucolor.” Seriously, this film comes from an era when motion pictures were truly magnificent on a grand scale; every image fills the eye with color and wonder, from the mountain scenery to the indoor set design to the sharp-but-simple western costuming. Johnny Guitar, released in 1954, is the 13th picture by celebrated director Nicholas Ray, known primarily for his noir-ish work in the late 1940s and ‘50s with films like They Live By Night and In A Lonely Place. While I wouldn’t call Johnny Guitar noir at all, it fits into the same “let’s get swept up into this world and learn all its secrets” category as just about any noir picture, which is surely helped along by the film’s bold colors, poetic dialogue, and theatrical qualities (to further this, visionary French filmmaker Francois Truffaut thought Johnny Guitar had such grace that he once referred to it as the “Beauty and the Beast of Westerns, a Western dream”).
Joan Crawford plays Vienna, a business woman and entrepreneur, who owns her own casino saloon on the outskirts of town. The first several minutes of the film are spent establishing Vienna’s character; we see a lone man on a horse arrive at her casino carrying a guitar (could this be the titular Johnny Guitar? You bet it is!) and as he’s waiting for his appointment with the boss lady, the men working the tables and behind the bar begin to describe her to him. “I’ve never seen a woman who acts more like a man. She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I’m not,” the blackjack dealer says. Vienna may be what you call “tough but fair,” but she treats the fellas who work for her well, enough for them to remain very loyal to her. John Carradine has a supporting role as the casino’s cook, Tom, and in one of his early lines, he states, “I never believed I’d end my years working for a woman…and liking it.” Of course, it’s important to note that this is a story set in the 1890s, seen through the lens of the 1950s, and while today we expect more from a so-called “strong female character” than to be comparable in nature to a man, I firmly believe this description of Vienna is apt for its time. It paints her as the confident, wise, and powerful woman that she is. But in its day, the film was not very well received by American critics and audiences; it was almost as if they didn’t know what to do with it. Crawford was criticized for downplaying her femininity (one New York Times critic referred to her as “sexless” and “romantically forbidding”) and Variety called the film “shallow” and “pretentious.” All of which, to me, seems absolutely absurd. The criticism on Crawford especially irks me because she plays the character with both a doe-eyed sentimentality and fierce determination that pretty much exemplifies my idea of a perfect woman. To each his own, though, 1950s Movie Critic.
What I like about westerns is that oftentimes their depth is sneaky. We say that horror and sci-fi films have the most hidden subtext, and while that may be true, we can’t discount the true value of a well-written western. Westerns reflect on the American experience and attempt to teach us what we did (or, are doing) wrong, and although the lessons and values presented may be subjective, they’re still there. The sneaky part, though, is that even though the squabbles between the traditional Black Hats and White Hats seem simplistic, there’s usually hidden meanings and allegories beyond all the horse stunts and gunfire. Johnny Guitar is no exception to this: the obvious theme is that women have always struggled to fight the bias against them when it comes to independence. It’s a major theme that has its ties to not only the historical witch-hunting of New England, but to the more modern witch-hunting of Senator McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Early on, Vienna is visited in her casino by a gang of townsfolk who are dead set on arresting her and some of her men for a stagecoach robbery and murder that had just taken place. There is no evidence beyond the circumstantial that she or any of her crew had anything to do with those crimes, and even then, the circumstantial is a bit iffy in this situation. Yet, the townspeople are convinced they are guilty, and led by one particularly pushy woman, Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), the town begins to really gang up on the group. Emma thinks that Vienna is a tramp (the exact line is “You’re nothing but a railroad tramp, you’re not fit to live among decent people!”) and that her friends are trash, and for that reason alone, she wants them hanged.
But I think there’s more to this situation than a simple witch-hunt. Look a little deeper, and you’ll see the town isn’t only afraid of Vienna holding her own, they’re afraid of what the future might hold. See, Vienna is working on a deal with a railroad developer to build a train depot on her land, which will surely bring much business to her casino. But the townsfolk think everything is fine just the way it is, that if strangers start invading the town via the railroad, the peace in their little neck of the woods will be broken. So, they fight. “You’ll never see a train run through!” Emma declares in one scene. It’s an isolationist viewpoint that is compounded by a fear of progress, which goes to show just how universal and timeless of an experience this is in America. Not wanting the railroad to come to town might as well be the 1890s version of a border wall. You know, people often say they wish they could go back to a “simpler time,” but what they neglect to think about is that no time was ever simple. Every era had its complexities and nuances, every era had something for someone to be mad about, but it’s that desire for a “simple life” that motivates these characters in Johnny Guitar. They just want things to be familiar and, in a way, uniform, so of course, Vienna scares them. The railroad scares them. They both symbolize their worst fear: to be shaken up and have to deal with the reality of a changing time. Vienna fires out this idea in a short diatribe addressing Emma and the rest of the townsfolk: “You and McIvers own the whole town and every head of beef for 500 miles. But that isn’t enough, is it? You’ve got to own everything! You can’t stand to see anybody else live! Well, you’re going to. You’re going to see a whole new town. Right where you’re standing! A town you don’t own! Railroad sending in people by tens, twenties, hundreds, and thousands! You can’t keep them all out!” It’s really one of the moments I’m most proud of Vienna for in this entire picture.
I’m not going to give away any more of the plot, but please understand it’s an adventure that appeals to just about every emotion, and remains effective to this day. There’s a love story, a love triangle, a double-cross, a lynching, a casino fire, and a harrowing escape — just to name a few. Supporting characters include the aforementioned Carradine, Royal Dano, and Ernest Borgnine. Johnny Guitar himself is played by Sterling Hayden (who, coincidentally, was briefly a member of the Communist Party and “named names” during the Red Scare), and although the film is named after him, his role merely serves as motivation for the inarguable star of the show, Crawford’s Vienna. Everything about this film is something to ingest, and I really could not recommend it more. Many thanks to Trey for putting it on his list this month, and I’m sure he’d agree that Johnny Guitar is tragically underseen. So why don’t we all try and fix that? Olive Films has put it out as an Olive Signature blu-ray, and it’s streaming on a few different places online at the time of this review. So, seriously, get to it!