Johnny Guitar: 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 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, editingand 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 Francis Truffaut, just before they started their own cinematic revolution, the New Wave. Which shows the role of criticismin this case auteuristin “rescuing” a picture from oblivion by giving it a counter-reading and securing its place in film history.