Johnny Guitar

Cast: Joan Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge, Sterling Hayden, Scott Brady.
Director: Nicholas Ray

In his later years, the great Orson Welles often dined with author Gore Vidal. During one of their get-togethers, the film giant told the literary lion how humbling it was to hear French film critics suggest he was one of only three film directors worthy of consideration as a true artist. However, Welles also complained that these same critics who flattered him were also masters of what he called "the unexpected letdown." The letdown came when Welles discovered that the trio of which he was a part included not only D.W. Griffith, whom Welles greatly admired, but also Nicholas Ray, whom he did not.

Yes, Nicholas Ray, not Hitchcock, Huston, Kubrick, Ford, Lubitsch, or Wilder, but Nicholas Ray, the director of They Live By Night, Rebel Without a Cause, In a Lonely Place, the remake of King of Kings and the cult favorite Johnny Guitar. Francois Truffaut may have hailed Ray as "the poet of nightfall," and Martin Scorcese can gush over Johnny Guitar all he wants but, fact is, Welles was right to feel deflated. Ray may very well be an "auteur" whose films present a consistent personal vision, but he is not a great auteur on the level of the creators of Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane. But Rayís work is highly regarded by film buffs, and rightfully so. The 1954 western Johnny Guitar is a minor classic, not really a western at all but a bizarre psychological study laced with insightful social commentary.

The plot has Joan Crawford maintaining a powerful hold on a boomtown where the railroad promises to bring even more boom. Crawford operates a casino on the outskirts of town and sheís buying more and more property, poised to become the Westís ultimate dominatrix. Sheís also suspected of having led the robbery of a stagecoach, a crime that claimed the brother of Mercedes McCambridge who despises Crawford and wants to run her out of town. The reversal of gender roles is the most interesting aspect of this movie, the first western in which two women wear the pants and dominate the proceedings. The tension between these two is considerable, and itís no wonder. Crawford, apparently resentful that there was another woman in the cast, allegedly did one of her Mommie Dearest numbers on her co-star, making life hell for the poor actress throughout the shoot.

The womenís strength is enhanced by the casting of two comparatively weak actors in the leading male roles. Sterling Hayden plays Johnny Guitar with that look of goofy detachment that was always his trademark. Hayden came into his own as an actor with Dr. Strangelove and The Long Goodbye in roles that capitalized on his considerable eccentricity (primarily showcased in a 1977 appearance on Tom Snyderís "Tomorrow" program), but that was still a decade away. For now, even the quality films in which he starred, including John Hustonís The Asphalt Jungle, were treated like B films by their studios because Hayden was primarily a B actor.

Scott Brady is in a lesser league than Hayden, an actor whose name you recognize but whose face you can never seem to place, even when youíre staring directly at it. Like Hayden, Brady is wiped clean off the screen by Crawford and McCambridge.

The supporting cast is a little stronger. Western vets Ward Bond, Royal Dano, and John Carradine are on hand, along with a pre-Marty Ernest Borgnine. And, of course, you have Paul Fix. Hell, you always have Paul Fix. The man has been in almost every western ever made, usually appearing as a sheriff or doctor.

Visually, Johnny Guitar is quite beautiful. Filmed on location in gorgeous Sedona, Arizona in a process called Tru-Color ("by Consolidated," as the announcer excitedly shouts in the trailer), the colors are frequently so bright thereís an almost 3D quality at work. Joan Crawfordís overly red lips jump off the screen (yes, I know, itís a frightening thought), and this effect is heightened by the contrast in the costumes. While the Crawford camp generally favor colorful attire, the forces led by McCambridge dress in black ("funeral clothes," as Crawford calls them). Perhaps thatís director Rayís way of suggesting that the supposed good guys are really the villains; dull, colorless people whose lives are ruled by a blind respect for law and order, and are intolerant of lifestyles that are in opposition to their own values. Crawford and company are suspected of misdeeds but the charges are never proven. The shadow of the McCarthy witch hunts hangs heavy over a scene in which a participant in the bank robbery is bullied into implicating Crawford.

The dialogue in Philip Yordanís screenplay is frequently a hoot. When Hayden is asked for his name and he answers, "Johnny Guitar," Brady says, "Thatís no name." Thatís not funny in itself, but keep in mind that Brady is playing a character known only as "The Dancing Kid." At the conclusion, thereís also a fairly insipid title song performed by Peggy Lee who co-wrote it with the filmís composer, Victor Young.

Johnny Guitar is a lot of fun with a uniquely kinky touch. It may not be the work of a director worthy of being placed on a pedestal beside D.W. Griffith and Orson Welles but some sort of pedestal is in order for Ray. Rebel Without a Cause is a classic study of alienation with touching performances by James Dean and Sal Mineo. In a Lonely Place is unique because, like Billy Wilderís Sunset Boulevard, it puts the unsung hero of the cinema, the screenwriter, in the spotlight for a change. It also features one of Humphrey Bogartís most complex performances. Nicholas Ray ranks somewhere on the level of Samuel Fuller as a director whose films are much more interesting than they were considered to be when first released, though they still fall short of competing with the works of a genius like Welles. And so it is with Johnny Guitar.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© Copyright 1999, Brian W. Fairbanks. All Rights Reserved.

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