For the second movie on my Lent list, I’m profiling director Nicholas Ray’s classic 1954 western, “Johnny Guitar,” which pits Joan Crawford against a vigilante mob led by Mercedes McCambridge.
Here’s a quick synopsis: Joan’s character, Vienna, has built a saloon/casino on the outskirts of town hoping she’ll cash in her chips once the railroad lays down tracks. But the haughty townspeople, especially Mercedes’ character, Emma, hate Vienna. Trouble ensues when Emma accuses Vienna of abetting stagecoach robbers who killed her brother. More trouble ensues when Vienna’s old flame, who answers to the name Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), shows up. How will Vienna’s new flame, the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), respond to Johnny’s arrival?
I love “Johnny Guitar” because…
…it’s actually more of a camp classic.
…the posse storyline serves as a metaphor for standing up to ’50s-era McCarthyism.
…blacklisted writer Ben Maddow reportedly wrote the script, which was credited to Philip Yordan.
…Nicholas Ray allegedly hated the movie. The fact that he couldn’t recognize the movie’s brilliance increases my appreciation for the film.
…it initially received horrible reviews.
…the shots of the vast saloon symbolize Vienna’s loneliness.
…it features a character named Turkey.
…it also features the obligatory loyal gang member who coughs a lot.
…Ernest Borgnine plays a jackass.
…papa John Carradine plays a cook.
…Vienna is wearing a white dress when the posse comes for her.
…as they flee the posse in the moonlight, Johnny has the good sense to suggest Vienna change into something a little less illuminating.
…of the waterfall scenes.
…Emma brings her dead brother’s corpse to Vienna’s saloon, dumps it in some sort of gambling table, and with righteous indignation accuses Vienna of killing him. Say what you want about Emma, but she knows how to respect a corpse.
…Emma’s hatred of Vienna is fueled by sexual repression. But does she want Vienna or the Dancin’ Kid?
…dialogue suggests Vienna earned the saloon by either working as a kept woman or as a whore, not that there’s really a difference.
…Pedro Almodóvar paid homage to the movie in “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”
…when Johnny asks Vienna, “How many men have you forgotten?” she answers, “As many women as you’ve remembered.”
…the final shootout occurs between two women.
…Peggy Lee croons the title song.
…the shot of Emma’s black mourning veil blowing off as she leads the posse is one of my favorite movie images ever.
…during their first confrontation, Emma threatens, “I’m going to kill you,” and Vienna coolly responds, “I know. If I don’t kill you first.”
Maybe it’s sexual tension or Joan and Mercedes’ real-life animosity bubbling to the surface, but the two dames bring the heat in that scene, which you can enjoy here. (My attempts to embed the clip were unsuccessful. Sorry about the ad.)