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After griping and whining for roughly fourteen years about the absence of Nicholas Ray's wonderful Johnny Guitar on disc, I'm happy to report that Olive Films has surprised us with not just a video release, but a Blu-ray in excellent color. Except for a handful of John Wayne films, the Republic Studio's movies have been woefully underrepresented on home video. The rights to the library appears to have come to rest with Viacom, now also the parent company of Paramount. Along the way, Republic seems to have gathered the title to movies as diverse as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (originally Allied Artists) and Body and Soul (United Artists). I'm personally hoping that Olive can license the exciting noir titles Plunder Road and Try and Get Me!, which Republic released on VHS back in 1990.
Johnny Guitar is an exceptional screen western in every respect, and one of Nicholas Ray's best films during his short run of '50s masterpieces. Sometimes described as too stagey and talky, it's a wholly lyrical and satisfying work of art in a western setting, a beautiful construction of western motifs and characters. It stars Joan Crawford, whose show business history and powerful personality have given the film a camp following. There is no ignoring the twisted gender identities in the conception of Crawford's gunslinging heroine.
On the other hand, Sterling Hayden's musician/quick draw artist earns the status of legend the old-fashioned way. For western adepts that prefer a direct approach the show plays as a straight oater, without ironies. When taken as a stylized experiment with the movie western form -- itself a stylized exaggeration of the reality of the frontier - Johnny Guitar becomes a work of art. Just to start, the movie bears a unique look thanks to the odd hues of Trucolor. The visuals are always pushing the edge of artificiality.
The story gathers enough interesting conflicts to qualify as an epic in miniature. Determined ex-prostitute Vienna (Crawford) has put built a lonely saloon-gambling hall near a mountain pass. She chose the location from a tip given by a former customer -- the railroad is coming through, and Vienna is set on founding and controlling a prosperous new town. But established local landowners John McIvers and Emma Small (Ward Bond & Mercedes McCambridge) recognize competition when they see it, and are committed to driving Vienna out. The sexually frustrated Emma is delirious with hatred for the desirable outsider, who she calls a "railroad tramp" to her face; she also has desire/hate thing going with Vienna's present beau The Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady). The Kid and his gang are working their secret silver mine when McIvers and Marshall Williams (Frank Ferguson) accuse them of a stage holdup in which Emma's beloved brother was killed. Taking the law into their own hands, McIvers and Emma would like to hang all of the 'suspicious outsiders', Vienna included. Vienna instead stands her ground, refusing to yield to greed, hatred and hysterical sexual frustration.
Into this unstable mix comes a musician who calls himself Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden). Mr. Guitar ignores the insults of the local elite, or the provocations of The Kid, who immediately senses a mutual attraction between Vienna and her new entertainer. Johnny invites derision when he breaks the first rule of western heroics. He backs away from a confrontation, "Because I'm not the fastest draw this side of the Pecos." What is the real relationship between the mysterious Johnny and the hard-hearted Vienna?
Johnny Guitar doesn't so much violate the rules of the genre as it penetrates western stereotypes to expose the mythical archetypes beneath. Vienna is all things a woman can be, even if some of them are contradictory. She's ruthlessly cynical and tough, yet also hopelessly romantic and bitterly disillusioned. She's seen every kind of man but holds out hope for her perfect mate. Our first sight of Vienna is of a woman dressed as a man, all in black, brandishing a six-gun. While we're recovering from this encounter, Ray cuts to the bartender Sam as he walks calmly toward the camera and tells us what we're already thinking: "Never seen a woman who was more of a man. She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I'm not." The line is a poetic aside to the audience. The movie also violates the rule that western politics be kept simplified. The dramatic allusions to the blacklist and witch-hunt hysteria are direct and powerful. Hypocritical funeral mourners transform into a lynch mob with ease. The entire show has the slightly off-kilter, poetic vibe common to many Nicholas Ray pictures.
Actor Sterling Hayden developed a healthy contempt for the entire project, but it's probably his most notable western. The initially "weak" Johnny is one of his best performances, an excellent critique of the western 'rule' that manliness requires one to be violent and deadly. The dismissive treatment of Johnny by the Dancin' Kid and his gang only serves to elevate the character suspense, as we feel certain that Mr. Guitar will eventually show his true colors.
The film has fistfights, gunslinging provocations, a bank holdup, a fire, and a lynching party. The action takes plays out in hyper-scenic locations in Sedona, Arizona, landscape constantly blasted by the coming railroad, where lovers and outlaws use underground tunnels and secret waterfalls to escape capture and hide from society.
Crawford's screen characters would soon become grotesque parodies of feminine allure, and finally labeled as conscious or unconscious camp. In Johnny Guitar she has the coloration of genre to hide behind but also a strong, interesting character to play. Film Interpretation 101 will of course zero in on the stylization in her costumes -- the masculine Vienna in black blooms to virginal white when her romance with Johnny is rekindled. 1
Vienna's extended catfight with the deranged Emma Small spilled over into real life due to Joan Crawford's all-dominating, all controlling personality. Crawford was notorious for her terrible treatment of some of her actress co-stars, and reacted to female competition like a vicious animal. Having brought the film to Republic in the first place, she set off a publicity firestorm over her hatred of Mercedes McCambridge, whose sin was not playing the passive Simp Sister to the All Powerful Joan. Crawford then demanded that the entire ending of the film be rewritten to favor the Vienna character and resolve the action in a personal combat between the two women. Although Crawford's interference in later pictures is sometimes embarrassingly obvious, Johnny Guitar's finale is satisfying in the extreme. This is one picture probably made better by an out-of-control star ego.
Not the kind of director to force his will on the set, Nicholas Ray mostly retreated before Crawford's demands. Ironically, in later interviews Ray spoke of Guitar as a personal disappointment. Today it seems wholly inspired. The extended first act in the bar is a beautifully sustained piece of spatial blocking that establishes and articulates complex patterns of relationships.
Johnny Guitar also gets an A+ for political acuity. Westerns often reflect the issues of their time, but this script is a stylized political morality play. The central conflict is a struggle for control of the west, a competition for resources, property and ownership of the future. The entrenched landholders lie, kill and pervert the law to keep anyone else from gaining a foothold. The greedy McIvers and Emma bully and threaten their neighbors to drive out anyone that threatens them. Emma is a mass of festering hatred and jealousy, not to mention sexual mania. Most everything Emma says comes out as an unreasonable accusation. Unable to have The Kid for herself, she's willing to scapegoat him and demonize Vienna. Her fury drives McIvers and the posse into a lynch mob. Johnny Guitar knows lynch mob trouble: "They're men with itchy fingers and a coil of rope around their saddle horns, lookin' for somebody to hang. And after riding a few hours they don't care much who they hang."
The film's 'informing' scene is the most audacious expression of the witch-hunt in films. It paradoxically includes actor Ward Bond, Hollywood's number one patriotic bully in the political cleansing of political undesirables. Threatened with a rope, young Turkey Ralston (Ben Cooper) is promised leniency if he will only name Vienna as a conspirator in a bank robbery. Emma browbeats him without mercy; she's only after a legal pretext to hang them both. Turkey turns to Vienna: "Tell me what to do!"
Actor Hayden's account of his self-loathing after naming names to the HUAC amounted to a major public confession. Blacklisted writer Ben Maddow (Native Land, Intruder in the Dust) also recanted to the Committees in an effort to save his career. He was blacklisted anyway and his work went uncredited for seven years. On Johnny Guitar half of Maddow's salary for his scripting work reportedly went to the dealmaker Philip Yordan, who took a full writing credit. Is the Turkey character how Maddow saw himself?
The beauty of Johnny Guitar can be seen in its unofficial remake by Sergio Leone, who had a nagging habit of appropriating successful movies by other directors. The epic Once Upon a Time in the West repeats the same plotline but with one-dimensional characters, gaining its power from a wholly different set of dramatic-aesthetic values. Ray's film offers a social message while Leone's is pure operatic mythomania. The New Wave film critics Truffaut and Godard were so jazzed by Johnny Guitar that they worked visual and verbal references to it into several of their movies. Perhaps the most perceptive reference to Ray's film comes in Pedro Almodóvar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The intensely romantic scene between Johnny and Vienna is projected in a screening room. Johnny's voice is imploring, while Vienna reflects his words bitterly:
Johnny: Lie to me. Tell me all these years you've waited. Tell me.
The kicker is that in Women on the Verge, the scene is being dubbed into Spanish, and the voice artists doing the dubbing are estranged lovers. The scene is equally affecting in the other language, and its dramatic truth is undiminished.
All these connections and 'enlargements' aside, Johnny Guitar has scores of intensely satisfying moments. We marvel at Mercedes McCambridge's unrestrained mania as Emma Small, wheeling in complete rapture over the spectacle of the fire she has started in Vienna's beautiful tavern. The characters are given perfect dialogue moments, even the boorish baddie Bart Lonergan (Ernest Borgnine). Frustrated at a partner's refusal to join him in a betrayal of their friends, Bart stabs the man to death and then shouts out his self-justification: "Some people just won't LISTEN!" Nicholas Ray's splendid direction usually elicits applause. An extremely smart edit to Johnny catching a shot glass rolling off the bar betrays the mystery man's hidden gunfighter reflexes. When the climax explodes into all-out action, Sterling Hayden makes with a really exciting quick draw. All that and the great Peggy Lee singing a stanza of the romantic title tune, and Johnny Guitar is a western for western fans that really appreciate the genre.
Olive Films' Blu-ray (and DVD) of Johnny Guitar is a bright and colorful HD rendering of this unique western drama, that retains the odd color values associated with Consolidated Film Labs' proprietary Trucolor printing process. The transfer is rich and detailed in the contrasty Trucolor.
The disc's Aspect Ratio is an open-matte 1:37. This is how I've always seen the movie on television, so it's not at all distracting. But Nicholas Ray's movie was originally filmed and exhibited in the then- one year-old widescreen format. Bob Furmanek of the 3D Film Archive sent me a trade paper article spelling it out:
"Hi Glenn, I'm not sure if you're doing the review, but here's the data. Republic officially announced their widescreen cinematography policy on August 8, 1953. It was the last studio to do so. Johnny Guitar began filming on location in Sedona on October 19. Variety lists 1.66:1 as the ratio. Looking at frame grabs, this Blu-ray transfer appears to be zoomed in a bit. Best, Bob"
The middle still above is a film frame grab.It shows plenty of air space top and bottom that could easily be masked away. On a large monitor the image looks more than acceptable when screened flat, but I have a feeling that a properly formatted transfer would focus the action even more, and lessen the stage-bound impression that crops up in reviews.
Interestingly, Olive Film's menu screen samples matted widescreen images from the film, perhaps giving us a hint of the original theatrical framing.
I am glad that Viacom/Paramount has not followed the lead of some Burn on Demand discs: in the past couple of years at least one company has made some ersatz widescreen DVD versions by enlarging and squeezing flat transfers. This Johnny Guitar Blu-ray is a fine disc in an imperfect world.
Martin Scorsese offers an introduction to the film, the disc's only extra.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Johnny Guitar Blu-ray rates:
1. The great critic Raymond Durgnat's essay on Johnny Guitar in his book Films and Feelings submits the film's characters to a brilliant analysis. This is Vienna's story, and therefore she is the one personality developed in a full three internal dimensions. Her actions can be unpredictable. But the film's male presence is broken up and divided across a number of characters with contrasting external attributes. Each is much more predictable. Johnny is noble and regretful. The Kid is attractive and sexually aggressive. Bart Lonergan is a stupid brute. Corey (Royal Dano) is sickly and inoffensive. The intensely loyal Old Tom (John Carradine) wants to be something other than a feeble loser. Turkey would like to be Vienna's lover, but he's far too young and callow to impress her.
Durgnat suggested that an alternate Johnny Guitar could be concocted to favor a male star. In that version, the hero's personality would be given the qualities here spread out across several male characters. The Vienna character would be divided up into three or four contrasting women -- the butch gunslinger, the virginal bride, the disillusioned woman with a past. It's a good screenwriting lesson, understanding the difference between real people, genre ciphers, and thoughtfully 'orchestrated' dramatic characters.
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T'was Ever Thus.