Director Nicolas Ray made “Johnny Guitar” at a time when America was least willing to accept it. 1954 marked a high point in the cold war and a low point in artistic and cultural output. Hollywood churned out dancing Fred Astaire’s and swaggering John Wayne’s. A surreal, existentialist drama set in the old west with feminist and anti-McCarthy subtexts didn’t stand a chance in this vapid wasteland.
That’s not to say Johnny Guitar is a political film. On the surface, it’s a dramatic narrative about a town divided between two warring women: Emma Small (played by Mercedes McCambridge), a local cattle baron representing the establishment, and Vienna (played by Joan Crawford), an entrepreneur who builds a casino outside of town and waits for the coming railroad. Johnny Guitar, played by Sterling Hayden, travels from afar to play the guitar in Vienna’s casino. And lastly, the Dancing Kid (Vienna’s occasional flame, suspected bandit, and object of Emma’s desire) directly and indirectly propels the narrative forward.
Despite the old-west setting, it’s not exactly a western. If the revisionist storyline wasn’t enough to turn fickle audiences off, Ray’s slow pacing, surreal settings, and innovative use of color surely doomed this film to commercial failure. It opens with a descent into hell: a lone cowboy, with only a guitar strapped to his back, steers his horse down a mountain past unexplained explosions and a deadly stage-coach robbery, finally arriving in the desolate valley below in the middle of a sand-storm. Suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, he comes across a grand casino, whose cave-like interiors are empty of humans except for black-clad dealers, and silent save a slowly spinning roulette wheel.
Ray constantly toys with our expectations, most effectively through his strong use (and misuse) of color. He introduces the eventual heroes of the story in dark, austere costumes while painting Emma’s gang with a bright pageantry. By the end of the story, the roles reverse; Vienna shines in an angelic white dress, while Emma’s lynch mob menaces in black funeral attire. Throughout the entire film, Ray deliberately suppresses the color blue, further destabilizing the already volatile milieu.
Ray also builds tension through a roundabout narrative arc; in some cases, we never discover exactly what drives these characters to such extremes. Johnny’s devotion and Vienna’s obsession are eventually explained, while Emma’s hysterical blood lust and the Dancing Kid’s self-destructive actions leave us guessing.
The lynch-mob justice and guilt-by-association interrogations (“Just say she’s one of them!”) certainly paralleled the very real McCarthy-led witchhunts of the times. Add to that the obvious feminist subtext and it’s not hard to imagine why American audiences laughed the film into oblivion.
Of course, Ray could only go so far. He worked within the studio system, and ultimately depended on their continued funding for his career. If Nicolas Ray could make this film today, I have no doubt we’d find a thoroughly artistic and startling experience. He would have discarded some of the occasionally hackneyed dialogue from the script as well as the more cartoonish leitmotifs in the score. One for contrast, he probably would have enhanced the few violent points in the film to more effectively release all of the smoldering tension. Also, the simmering sexual undercurrents might have risen to the surface in a less inhibited fashion.
But as much as I’d like to see that version of the film, I’m still just thankful I got to experience this one.
DISCLAIMER: this reviewer takes no responsibility for the frustration you will experience in your attempts to actually find a copy of this film.
CREDIT: Special thanks to my awesome friend and movie buff Ashley H. for burning me an already bootlegged copy of this film!