‘Johnny Guitar’ or — Johnny Who?

I’d known of Nicholas Ray’s ‘Johnny Guitar’ (1954) by reputation for years, usually with it being referred to by use of words such as “demented”, “brilliant” and “insane”. That and the fact that Christopher Frayling mentions it frequently in his commentary for Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ (1968) so I was curious to discover if I could spot the parallels between the two films.

‘Johnny Guitar’ literally explodes (I can immediately understand why Leone loved this film) onto the screen as mountains are demolished for a new railroad. Throughout the dust and noise Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) rides up to Vienna’s (Joan Crawford) isolated saloon.

Vienna is not popular with the locals of the nearby cattle town because Vienna seems to have a thing going with the outlaw The Dancin’ Kid, although their biggest gripe with Vienna is how she has positioned her saloon at exactly the right location where the railroad will pass by (and there’s the entire plot to ‘Once Upon a Time n the West’ right there!). When it does Vienna’s business and future will explode as mightily as those nearby mountains and the coming 20th Century will obliterate everything in its path (this might be what the locals fear most). Either way, the townsfolk, egged on by Vienna’s jealous rival Emma Stone (Mercedes McCambridge), give Vienna 24 hours to get out of town… or else.

When The Dancin’ Kid and his gang rob the local bank (and why not if those intolerant locals want them gone anyway?) Vienna is accused of helping them out so it’s not long before a lynch mob and anti-McCarthy metaphor is formed and on its way to Vienna’s saloon to permanently remove her once and for all.

Will Johnny Guitar be able to resurrect his gun-slinging ways to help his ex-lover before it’s too late? Watch ‘Johnny Guitar’ and find out!

Sounds like a pretty straight forward Western, right? And it kinda is until we start to realise that this movie is functioning on some sort of bizarre and freaky form of energy. Not long in there’s a sly fourth wall break (I now understand why the French loved this film) that hits like a jolt and puts us on our back-feet wondering what the hell could happen next. Combine that with an almost psychedelic production design (what the hell is Joan Crawford wearing?!), deliciously unhinged performances and a colour palette that’s so berserk and hysterical you wonder if the art department ended up sectioned. ‘Johnny Guitar’ isn’t a Western; it’s a form of mania.

This excessively manic energy is beautifully illustrated by a relatively innocuous scene where Johnny takes Vienna for a horse-drawn carriage ride allowing them to talk things over. It seems perfectly reasonable but look at the rear-projection background and ask yourself just how fucking fast that horse must be going. It must be at LEAST fifty miles an hour! This type of insanity is in every frame of ‘Johnny Guitar’.

Talking of insanity there’s the acting, specifically that of Joan Crawford who portrays Vienna with such ferocity that she consumes the entire picture. Think she needs saving by Johnny? By the end that idea has been completely destroyed as what we’re witnessing is Crawford’s single handed and total domination of a motion picture. And it is SO much fun to watch!

When the town’s folk rock up to her saloon towards the end she’s waiting for them. But just look at her! She’s sitting at a piano in a dazzling white dress, her mouth a red slash across her face, a surreal rock wall behind her and her eyes are blazing with absolute defiance. Vienna looks nothing like a saloon owner and more like a Bond villain. It’s a spectacular image that doesn’t so much grab our attention as pin it against the wall, brutally knocking the wind out whilst doing so. It’s one of the great bat-shit performances in cinema.

That is until Mercedes McCambridge returns at the climax to show the entire world EXACTLY what bat-shit really means with her jealousy (both sexual and social but mainly sexual) fuelled Emma having nothing to do with the Old West or Westerns and more that she’s decided she’s a demon in a horror movie.

When these two women, each of which providing more than enough crazy energy for three separate movies let alone one, confront each other at the climax it’s truly something to behold. No wonder the men don’t get a look in and we start wondering why this movie is called ‘Johnny Guitar’ as this isn’t about him or railroads and saloons, cattle or lovers but who is going to control this movie — Crawford or McCambridge? This is more ‘Godzilla vs. Rodan’ in taffeta and velvet and I wonder if director Nicholas Ray ever pondered on just what had been released here?

I loved every second of ‘Johnny Guitar’ and now totally understand why it has its reputation, and it’s one that the film exceeds with blistering force. Amazingly it never falls apart, even though it possibly should. In fact, the faster it goes and the crazier it gets the more it comes together, like a rotating ice-skater pulling her arms in allowing for greater speed and cohesion. After all, according to chaos theory it’s the unstable systems that are the most stable and this is a delirious and delightful spinning-top of a movie.