Director Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar seems intended as a criticism of the McCarthy era of the 1950′s, but the subtext doesn’t end there, which makes it more fascinating than it’s awkward plotting would suggest. And though the production value of the film is not altogether great, it’s hard not to wonder if it and the clumsy plot are being used to hide the film’s true intentions.
- Director: Nicholas Ray
- Writer: Ben Maddow, Philip Yordan, Roy Chanslor
- Cast: Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, Scott Brady
Vienna (Joan Crawford) is a tough entrepreneurial women making her way in the West. She owns a saloon in the middle of the nowhere and is a strong advocate for having the railroad built nearby. A group of locals, including Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) function as her rivals. When a mysterious robbery of a stagecoach occurs, it becomes a perfect excuse to drive Vienna out of town, and a 24-hour order is given to expel Vienna and the cattlemen who patronize her saloon. Enter into all this mess, Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), a reformed gunslinger who is also an ex-lover of Vienna’s.
The name Johnny Guitar sounds cool, and his personality is the type that many would describe as such: he has a mysterious past, he’s an excellent shot, and as his name implies he is also a musician — everything about him sounds cool. But just like the character, Johnny Guitar falls short of greatness. There are elements that feel a bit low in production value, such as the cheap rear-projection during scenes that involve driving. The fighting is not necessarily well choreographed, and during some exterior shots it is noticeable that tree branches don’t move despite the sound of howling winds. Some of the dialogue that takes place between Hayden and Crawford feels a bit like a daytime soap, and at times Hayden sounds as vapid as Keanu Reeves delivering lines.
But even with several faulty production elements, Johnny Guitar is enjoyable, mostly for how it plays with its genre. Compared to other Westerns, we have a strong female role in Vienna , who overshadows Mr. Guitar in many of the traits we typically associate with a lead role. She’s a more of a gunslinger, owns her own business, and is clearly more defiant of authority than any of her counterparts. Much has been written about the fact that writer Ben Maddow had been blacklisted by the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). And while I give this film a great deal of thought, I can see how the mob mentality at the core of the plot is as politically subversive as it gets.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
Throughout his review, Ebert praises the film for two of its qualities. First, he admires the fact that it was even made, considering the threat of infuriating the HUAC. Second, Ebert praises the unconventional nature of this film within the Western genre. While it is true that it plays quite differently than other Westerns, Johnny Guitar is not a great film. There are too many issues with its plot and its production, even if they are said to be a deliberate attempt to fly under the radar during the McCarthyism of the 1950′s. Nevertheless, Johnny Guitar has a great deal of subtext. As Ebert points out, the tension between the two leading females roles is of a sapphic nature, serving as proof that on a psycho-sexual level, there is much to interpret here. Maybe all of this is true, but even if it isn’t, this would be a great film to study within the context of the historical time in which it was made.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GOOD
Do you like Johnny Guitar? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: An Autumn Afternoon
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, a monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 363 films (more if you count the trilogies, the Up docs and Decalogue). Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar this week, he now has 331 under his belt and less than 50 films left to go.