Directed by Nicholas Ray and released by Republic to theaters in 1954, Johnny Guitar takes place in a small western town where a saloon owner named Vienna (Joan Crawford) figures she'll get in on some land development action. Her plan is to buy up property to build a new town on once the railroad work in the area is completed. Vienna's got ties to some disreputable types, however, namely a gang lead by a hooligan known as The Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady). The Kid is a tough guy who seems to be in love with Vienna. This brings Vienna to the attention of one Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), who may or may not have a crush on The Kid herself. Emma is a woman who has a strong dislike of Vienna and as such has no qualms whatsoever about bringing in the law, in the form of the Sheriff (Frank Ferguson), to keep an eye on her. Emma obviously doesn't want Vienna to cash in on the hordes of people that the railroad will bring in and would vastly prefer it if she could get Vienna out of town for good.
Enter a man from Vienna's past named Johnny 'Guitar' Logan (Sterling Hayden). He arrives just in time to help out when Emma tries to frame Vienna for a stagecoach robbery that recently took place. Johnny has been conspicuously absent from Vienna's life for the last five years but now he's back. Just as he arrives, the Sheriff has to try to figure out who really robbed the stagecoach and why. Inevitably, perhaps, sparks fly between all involved.
Loaded with symbolism and allegorical scenes that were obviously intended to point fingers at the McCarthy era witch hunt that was tearing through the country around this time, Johnny Guitar is anything but a typical American western. The plot comes secondary to the motifs and more subtle leadings of the script. This affords the game cast every opportunity to strut their stuff and sometimes to go over the top. Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge are both fantastic here, offering up powerhouse performances that leave each and every one of the male cast members in the dust. The fact that they reportedly did not get along at all on the shoot probably adds a level of realism to the tension in the scenes they share. This likely have been there had they been fast friends, and the film is all the better for it. In fact, most of what happens between the male characters, chiefly The Dancin' Kid and Johnny Guitar, is somewhat dull. The real reason to watch the story is for the ladies, and how many other westerns of the fifties can you say that about? Look for Ernest Borgnine and John Carradine in some small but fun supporting roles, but really, it's Crawford and McCambridge you walk away from remembering when the film is over and done with.
There are levels of veiled lesbian overtones running throughout the storyline and all sorts of interesting visuals to enjoy and try to decipher. On top of that, the whole thing is written more like a tense A Streetcar Named Desire type stage play than your typical cowboys and six shooters action adventure story. Johnny and Vienna have a key scene together in which they basically insist on lying to one another about what they've been up to during the five years that they were apart. This is importance because it is as telling as to their true motives as any other part of the movie or aspect of their respective characters. Production values almost seem to be an afterthought here, the town is so sparse it barely qualifies while unusually important wardrobe changes happen instantly (and off camera), but the titular theme song, sung by the great Peggy Lee, is pretty classic. The use of color in the film is excellent as is the camera work. While this may have been made on the fast and cheap, all involved were experienced enough from past jobs that there's no way they didn't really realize what they were up to here. As such, we're left with a very interesting film not just because of what we see happen on screen but because of what it likely represented to many of those involved, director Nicholas Ray in particular (who was a bit of an eccentric).The Blu-ray:
Johnny Guitar arrives on Blu-ray in its original 1.66.1 widescreen aspect ratio and in full color just as it was meant to be seen in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition presentation. Take from a new 4k scan of the original negative, this is a very film-like presentation. As such, there's a fair bit of natural looking film grain here but no one should see that as a detriment, particularly as it's never distracting. Detail is really strong from start to finish and the film's colors reproduced beautifully. The image is very clean, there's very little actual print damage here to discuss, just the odd small white speck now and again. Skin tones look nice and natural and black levels are strong but don't delve into crushing out detail even in the darker scenes. Compression artifacts and edge enhancement are never once a problem and we get very nice depth and texture here as well.Sound:
The English language DTS-HD 2.0 Mono sound mix on the Blu-ray is also of very nice quality. The levels are properly balanced, the dialogue is crisp and easy to follow and there are no noticeable issues with hiss or distortion to report. The film's score from composer Victor Young sounds nice and clean and adds some welcome dramatic flair to a few key scenes and some suspense to the action sequences as well. There's more depth and range here than you might expect, and for an older mono mix things sound quite full on this disc. There are no alternate language options although removable English subtitles are provided.Extras:
The previous release from Olive Films was completely barebones but with this reissue, under their new Signature series line, they more than make up for that starting with an all new audio commentary from film historian and critic Geoff Andrew. This is a well laid out talk about the history of the film that details Ray's work as a director leading up to this project. Additionally, we learn about the cast and crew, the locations, some of the themes that the storyline deals with, and how the film has been received over the years. It's a pretty interesting commentary and a nice way to revisit the film for those who have seen it a few times previously.
Moving on to the featurettes, we start with Tell Us She Was One of You: The Blacklist History Of Johnny Guitar which is a ten minute piece where film historian Larry Ceplair and blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein discuss this somewhat notorious aspect of the film's history. Those with an interest in the history of McCarthyism and how it affected Hollywood at the time should check this out, it's quite interesting. Is Johnny Guitar A Feminist Western?: Questioning The Canon is a fifteen minute featurette wherein film critics Miriam Bale, Kent Jones, Joe McElhaney and B. Ruby Rich share some thoughts on the more empowering aspects that the film shows towards the female characters featured in the picture. They talk about how this was unique for its time and make some interesting comparisons to other similarly themed films made in the same era. The same participants show up in Johnny Guitar: A Western Like No Other, which runs just under eighteen minutes and sees the commentators discuss the history of the film and what sets it apart from the seemingly endless stream of western films that were being churned out by Republic and other studios. There's some interesting food for thought here and some notable appreciation for what director Ray brought to this film to help set it apart from the others. Film archivist Marc Wanamaker spends six minutes on camera for Free Republic: The Story Of Herb Yates And Republic Studios. As you'd imagine, this is a quick rundown of Yates' work ethic and influence as well as how Republic came to be such a huge player in the western film market of its day. My Friend, the American Friend is an eleven minute biographical piece on Ray with Tom Farrell who gives us a brief but very welcome look at the director's life and times. Chris Sievernich also appears here and there are some really interesting stories about what he would have been like to work with and what makes his filmography stand the test of time the way it does. Johnny Guitar: The First Existential Western is a visual essay of sorts penned by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. This covers, as the title implies, the existential aspects of the film and so there is some insight into the picture's more philosophical aspects and the bigger picture that they might represent.
Rounding out the extras on the disc are an introduction by Martin Scorsese (a three and a half minutes piece taken from an older tape source), the film's original theatrical trailer, menus and chapter selection. Inside the Blu-ray case is an insert booklet containing a text version of the same essay on the film by Rosenbaum and some nice archival artwork. The Blu-ray case itself, made of clear plastic, fits inside a nice cardboard slipcover. The packaging for this is really classy and worth mentioning.Final Thoughts:
Johnny Guitar is a really enjoyable film thanks to a fun and exciting story and some impressive performances. It's an odd picture when compared to the countless other American western films being churned out around the same time, but that's a big part of its appeal in the first place. Olive's new Blu-ray release looks gorgeous and features an impressive selection of extra features. Highly recommended.