Johnny Guitar (1954): Nicholas Ray Cult Western, Starring Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge

Nicholas Ray’s “Johnny Guitar” is a politically subversive (anti-McCarthy) Western, which is at once poetic and neurotic.

Johnny Guitar
Johnny guitar.jpg

Original poster

Johnny Guitar can be viewed and enjoyed on different levels. Indeed, some critics see it as a strong feminist statement, while others emphasize the film’s unintentional gay-campy sensibility.

Ray’s contrast of modern issues with the landscape of the Western genre makes this movie particularly interesting. On the one hand, the narrative is about a woman’s (Joan Crawford) fight to protect her property (and thus her autonomy), which will become imminently valuable when the railroad passes through her land. On the other, the film is an unusual love story between an aggressively modern woman and Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), her emasculated lover from the past, now afraid even to wear his gun.

Johnny Guitar is the first Hollywood Western, where women are cast as both the protagonist Vienna (Crawford) and antagonist Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), a vindictive woman with an eye on Vienna’s land. Emma joins a posse, headed by John McIvers (Ward Bond), to accuse Vienna of being in on a stagecoach job with a gang led by the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady). Vienna and the Dancin’ Kid deny the accusations, but Emma talks the Marshall into arresting them.

McIvers gives Vienna and the gang ultimatum, to leave the town in 24 hours, and while the Dancin’ Kid obeys, Vienna is determined to stay.

Framed for a heist, during a visit to the local bank, Vienna is set to hang for a crime she didn’t commit.

At the time, helmer Ray and writer Philip Yordan dismissed the source material, a novel by Roy Chanslor (who also penned Cat Ballou), as witless and senseless, claiming that they only use the basic premise.

The film’s portrayal of gender is innovative and ahead of its time. Most of the men are seen as cowards and weak, quiet or laconic, whereas the women are the strong, aggressive leaders.

Johnny Guitar is the first of a series of butch lesbians that McCambridge played in the 1950s, the others being “Giant” and Touch of Evil.”

Arizona’s Sedona serves as perfect “laboratory” for Ray’s highly experimental color film. Ray’s auteurist signature is visible in the bold color scheme, experimental lighting, mise-en-scene, architectural compositions, camera movement, editing and Victor Young’s haunting score.

Released before Senator McCarthy’s fall, Johnny Guitar is actually a veiled depiction of the “Red Scare” in Hollywood. With McCarthy’s rampage hitting Hollywood hard, director Nicholas Ray voluntarily blacklisted himself in protest. The movie contains some biting and scathing comments on McCarthyism–but it also reflects Ray’s loneliness and personal isolation.

Released by a second-tier studio, Republic, Johnny Guitar met with lukewarm to indifferent response from American reviewers. However, the film’s status was considerably elevated in the late 1950s, as a result of laudatory reviews from French critics Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, just before they started their own cinematic revolution, the New Wave.

This shows the powerful role of criticism–in this case auteurism “rescuing” a picture from oblivion by giving it a counter-reading, thus securing its place in film history.

Joan Crawford as Vienna
Sterling Hayden as Johnny Guitar (Johnny Logan)
Mercedes McCambridge as Emma Small
Scott Brady as The Dancin’ Kid
Ward Bond as John McIvers
Ben Cooper as Turkey Ralston
Ernest Borgnine as Bart Lonergan
John Carradine as Old Tom
Royal Dano as Corey
Frank Ferguson as Marshal Williams
Paul Fix as Eddie
Rhys Williams as Mr. Andrews
Ian MacDonald as Pete
Robert Osterloh as Sam

Directed by Nicholas Ray
Screenplay by Philip Yordan, based on Johnny Guitar 1953 novel by Roy Chanslor
Produced by Herbert J. Yates
Cinematography Harry Stradling
Edited by Richard L. Van Enger
Music by Peggy Lee, Victor Young
Color process Trucolor

Production and distribution company: Republic Pictures

Release date: August 23, 1954

Running time: 110 minutes
Box office $2.5 million (US rentals)