Johnny Guitar (1954) Revisited

Johnny Guitar (1954)Another of those films mentioned in The Story of Film: An Odysseyduring the New Wave movement of films in the 1950’s – 60’s. My first watch about three years ago I don’t really understand the film, Finding out later on Johnny Guitar (1954) was written as a western vehicle for Joan Crawford much like Rancho Notorious (1952) was for Marlene Dietrich, who was more accustomed to the genre. Both are not straight out of the park westerns. However Johnny Guitar simply uses the guise of the genre to tell a very confusing story that really does take a second look to get what is going on under all the big set-pieces you have so much subtext that it would take hours to properly analyse it. For instance if I were to discuss The Searchers (1956) it would be a new page just to give it the time need to fully understand the film and all that is going on. However I think I can refine my efforts to this lone posting for the earlier film.

I had to re-watch the Martin Scorsese introduction more as an explanation of what was going to happen. Coming into the film with ideas about the suppression of the colour blue, which is full on in the opening titles. There’s a lot to take in even from the introduction.

With all of that going on I reminded myself of the intensity of colour in Nicholas Ray‘s films, all of the colour and pent-up emotion that never cools down, always on the edge, where you remain for the duration of the film. From the moment that he titular character (Sterling Hayden) rides in a cloud of dust, surrounded by explosions, a stagecoach being held-up below. He does nothing to intervene, the territory he’s entering is in chaos, and he’s not here to tame it or anyone. Riding over to a saloon that stands out proudly from the rocks in Monument Valley. The redness of the rock is really unavoidable inside and out.

When we finally meet the owner Vienna (Joan Crawford) of the saloon we enter into a world that is no longer dominated by the man. Instead the first of two strong female figures who even the men who work for her are lower roles. The first instance of a reversal, in gender roles, there are no show-girls to entertain the men. Its men running the tables who see her more as a man. Early on the fourth wall’s broken to tell us how they feel about her position. Vienna maybe a woman by her sex, which is all but repressed leaving in a male gender. We’re confused more so by the very image of Crawford, a striking on-screen presence that cannot be ignored man or woman she owns the film even when she’s off the screen.

Turning to the main protagonist Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) who is the thorn in Vienna’s side, relentless in her goal to driver her out-of-town. Just as the rail-road is coming through. There is a real fear of change, of the individual seeing the future coming. To have a new element in their peaceful life is too much to handle. With these two leading women the man are practically emasculated, mostly Marshal Williams (Frank Ferguson) and John McIvers (Ward Bond) who along with the rest of the men in town are treated like women, subdued and put in their place. This is the very opposite to the standard western dynamic where the strong man stands up for the woman who cannot defend herself. Unless she is trying to get their attention or have to defend themselves in a dramatic sequences. Emma Small is after Vienna and the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) who along with his men are the only ‘real’ men in the town.

All Emma needs is an excuse and she will go after these five people, mirroring the communist witch-hunt of the time, which ruined many people’s careers lives. A law is to be enacted in 24 hours in the film that would put a stop to mining, selling alcohol and gambling, pushing out all of these people who have yet to be proved to have done anything wrong. Using the Dancin’ Kid’s gang for the stagecoach hold-up. Pushing witnesses into telling them what they want to hear. Truth means nothing in this film.

Away from the witch-hunt there are some interesting dramatic scenes that fill in those gaps seamlessly. Mostly between Vienna and Johnny Guitar a romance that’s been rekindled since he was asked  to come to town. Beginning as estranged to incredible passion that sees them reunited. You could also draw a lesbian relationship from the film between Vienna and Emma that has created the tension between the two, not that it’s spoken there’s a real hate for Vienna who does nothing to ask for the abuse and hate brought her way.

Looking at other aspects such as the choice of costumes, the good guys dress in high contrast colours almost blinding you, whilst the Emma and her men are restricted to black for most of the film, the colour of death, having come from a funeral. Like a mass of darkness consuming all the life in the town. A pressure that encourages the Dancin’ Kid’s gang to rob a bank, just to give them a reason, placing them in the line of fire.

Once you re-watch Johnny Guitar you start to lose the ambiguities of the first viewing to really look beyond the confusion to see a tense film, filled with suspicion double meanings, such as small things like a black veil falling away as the black mob ride into town. It’s such a richer experience, a female driven film that sees the men reduced to supporting roles. Just imagine a heavily populated female western today, the dynamic would be completely different, the settings and stories told to could relate to different aspects of frontier life. Or even stepping up to defend their families or just their reputation, all male drives. It’s a shame that Crawford distanced herself from this film that could have ‘rebooted’ her career, there may never have been Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Unlike Barbara Stanwyck who relished riding a horse and taking on the strong female roles during the same period of the western. It becomes what if’s from there on. Leaving us with a classic that dared to push what a western could be, and what film could do with gender roles. That not ignoring the more obvious guise of the tension in Hollywood over the McCarthy era. 

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2 responses

  1. I was surprised at Scorsese’s analysis because it aligned with my own. I had heard about movie (which some categorize as a Western) for a long time before I saw it. It shocked me. My first impression was “This is not a Western’. it something else – unique. It’s actually somewhat bizarre in places. Crawford herself was one of the bizarre actors I ever saw on a motion picture. She was not beautiful (at least not to me) but hypnotic to watch. Almost as if you didn’t know what was going to come out of her. I surely must believe there are underlying messages in this movie – such as Scorsese’s reference to the McCarthy witch hunt. Otherwise I don’t know what to make of it. I better watch it again.
    And YES maybe you’re right – it is an important Western that unfortunately very few took at lead from toward other possibilities for the genre.

    May 1, 2015 at 10:14 pm

    • Its one of those films that uses the guise of the genre and little else. You’re right about Crawford stuck in her image of the 30’s which becomes more striking as she got older. Made stronger being in a rare colour film too. I’ve noticed a few westerns looking at the McCarthy witch hunt. Using the impending train as a metaphor for change that others fear for what comes with it. Instead of progressive thinking. I think it was too radical to be taken seriously at the time of its release needing time to mature.

      May 1, 2015 at 10:44 pm

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