Nicholas Ray's "Johnny Guitar" (1954) is surely one of
the most blatant psychosexual melodramas ever to disguise itself in that most
commodious of genres, the Western. Consider: No money was lavished on the
production. The action centers on a two-story saloon "outside town,"
but we never even see "town," except for a bank facade and interior
set. So sparse are the settings that although the central character (Joan
Crawford) plays the tavern owner and goes through a spectacular costume charge,
we never see her boudoir -- she only appears on a balcony above the main floor,
having presumably emerged from the sacred inner temple.
cheap Western from Republic Pictures, yes. And also one of the boldest and most
stylized films of its time, quirky, political, twisted. Crawford bought the
rights to the original novel, Nicholas Ray signed on to direct, and I wonder if
they even openly spoke of the movie's buried themes. One is certainly
bisexualism; Crawford's tavern-owner Vienna is, it is claimed, in love with
"Johnny Guitar" (Sterling Hayden), but has not seen him in five
years. She effortlessly turns tough hombres into girly-men, and her bartender
observes to Johnny, "I never met a woman who was more man."
archenemy Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) is allegedly in love with "The
Dancin' Kid" (Scott Brady) and is jealous because he is allegedly in love
with Vienna ("I like you, but not that much," Vienna tells him). But
there is hardly a moment when Emma can tear her eyes away from Vienna to glance
at the Kid. All of the sexual energy is between the two women, no matter what
they say about the men. Crawford wanted Claire Trevor for the role, but the
studio, perhaps having studied the script carefully, insisted on McCambridge,
who was not a lesbian but played one, as they say, in the movies.
casting led to more Crawford bitch legends, as on the day when she threw
McCambridge's costume in the middle of a highway. The chemistry of loathing is
palpable, as it was between Crawford and Bette Davis in "Whatever Happened
to Baby Jane." Both women wear fetishistic black leather, silk and denim
costumes that would have been familiar enough to students of 1954 pornography:
The tightly corseted waists, the high boots, the long shirts, the tight
bodices, the lash of lipstick; give us Meg Myles in "Satan in High
said to be a "cattle baron" (not baroness), dominates her posse of
cowboys and lackeys, standing before them in a wide, challenging stance. She's
shorter than they are, but is always strutting in the front while they almost cower.
Crawford often appears from above on her balcony, worshipped by the camera in
low-angle, adored by her loyal employees, ordering Sam, her croupier,
"Spin the wheel. I like the way it sounds."
has to spin it. Throughout the film, the saloon attracts no ordinary customers,
only characters in the plot. Has a Western ever been more casual about its male
leads? "Johnny Guitar" is about the hatred between Vienna and Emma,
and Sterling Hayden seems to know it. Brought into town as fire-power when Vienna
fears gun trouble, he claims to have given up guns, speaks softly, talks of his
onetime love of Vienna with only barely convincing regret, and is laid-back, as
Sterling Hayden rarely ever is. The critic Dennis Schwartz recalls:
"Francois Truffaut said it reminded him of 'The Beauty and the Beast,'
with Sterling Hayden being the beauty."
plot. Ridiculous. Vienna owns the saloon in a choice location outside town. We
are not sure how a single woman without means paid for it, but are reminded by
Marlene Dietrich in "Shanghai Express" that "it took more than
one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily." Apparently Vienna is now all
paid up. but the railroad is coming through, and the townsfolk fear it will run
past her door and put them out of business.
town is led by McIvers (Ward Bond) and his tool the sheriff (Frank Ferguson),
who are led by Emma as they demand what Vienna knows about a stagecoach
robbery. The stolen cash was intended for her brother's bank. Since the Dancin'
Kid has rejected Emma's love, it stands to reason, doesn't it, that he stuck up
the bank, along with his tough sidekicks (Ernest Borgnine, Ben Cooper and Royal
Guitar arrives at about the same time. Coincidence? Imagine the notoriously
deadly Old West and an unarmed cowboy with only a guitar. Well, he does play it
once. But there is a secret: Guitar is the pseudonym for Johnny Logan, a
notorious gunslinger who retired five years ago. Vienna was Guitar's lover
until he "wasn't ready" for marriage (not to her, for sure). And the
sheriff, McIvers, etc. are trying to frame someone -- the Kid, maybe, for
sticking up the stagecoach. Their suspicions are not unfounded, since there are
literally no other characters in the movie, except for the faceless coots who
crowd into doorways behind McIvers.
dynamic of their investigation and their attempts to force townsfolk to testify
against one another form an allegory squarely aimed at the House Un-American
Activities Committee, which in 1954 was trying to force alleged communists to
"name names" of other alleged communists; the screenplay was ghosted
by the blacklisted Ben Maddow. A significant moment comes when Johnny Guitar
acknowledges his own name.
are extraordinary moments in the movie, not least when Crawford, who has been
dressed entirely in black, suddenly appears on the balcony in a stunning white
gown and cows the men with her presence and a piano recital(!).
is also fascinating to watch her and Johnny use words as love weapons. This
dialogue, quoted by the critic Derek Malcolm, could have appeared in the
laconic Broadway social dramas of the period:
Johnny:How many men have you
Vienna:As many women as
Johnny:Don't go away.
Vienna:I haven't moved.
Johnny:Tell me something
Vienna:Sure. What do you want
Johnny:Lie to me. Tell me all
these years you've waited ...
Vienna:All these years I've
Johnny:Tell me you'd have
diedif I hadn't come back.
Vienna:I would have died if
you hadn't come back.
Johnny:Tell me you still love
me like I love you.
Vienna:I still love you like
you love me.
Johnny:Thanks. Thanks a lot.
I see Brando as Johnny, Shirley Knight as Vienna. That's not Western dialogue,
it's cynicism made audible. There are other moments I will leave for you to
savor, and I trust you may share my bafflement about the route from the
waterfall to the hideout, but ponder this: Everyone involved in this movie had
made countless other films, knew all about the clichés and conventions, and
must have known how many they were breaking. As the scenes come along that are
clearly an indictment of HUAC, were they thinking they could get away with
murder because the surrounding movie was so goofy?
was goofy then, and very strange now. The more you think about the tavern and
the "town" and the tragedy that plays out against the unpopulated
landscape, the more you see them playing dice with their destinies. Spin the
wheel. I like the way it sounds.