Johnny Guitar (1954, Nicholas Ray)

Westerns Month continues. This is one of those contrary-auteurist favorites. It’s not even popular enough to be out on DVD in the states, and it’ll never make an AFI list, but, just for example, it’s on Jonathan Rosenbaum’s top 100 list (that’s hundred, not thousand). Not of westerns – of movies. So I had high expectations. And hell, I loved it, but I wouldn’t say I loved it more than Stagecoach or My Darling Clementine (or Red Garters), so maybe I wasn’t paying the right kind of attention, as usual.

L-R: Ben Cooper, Crawford, Carradine, Hayden:

Made the year before Rebel Without a Cause, and the acting style seems like a warm-up for that picture. Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge play town rivals. These actresses were so mad that one had a movie made about how she abused her children, and the other voiced the devil in The Exorcist. They play everything so huge that when they finally meet for a shootout at the end, you can see sparks flying off the film. The women are the men in this picture. Town leader (Ward Bond: Rio Bravo and Wyatt’s older brother in My Darling Clementine) takes his cues from Mercedes, and the other two men are named Johnny Guitar and The Dancin’ Kid – not so tough.

The Kid offends McCambridge; Ward Bond looks on:

Johnny, a former gunfighter trying his luck as a musician, is Sterling Hayden (still a couple years before The Killing) and the Kid is Scott Brady (who starred in a not-so-well-loved Billy the Kid movie for William Castle this same year) with reasonable henchman Royal Dano and mean, irritable henchman Ernest Borgnine. Those fellows are kind of assholes but they’re not criminals – that is, not until a Mercedes-led mob tosses them out of town. Then they figure they might as well knock over the bank on the way out. Crawford is an entrepreneur like McCabe, opening a bar and gambling hall right where the train is gonna come through town. All she ever did wrong was to steal the Kid away from Mercedes. The mob shuts her down and almost hangs her after the bank heist. Her loyal employee (Stagecoach vet John Carradine) is killed and her place burned to the ground, so she hides out with the Kid’s gang until the mob tracks them town. Awesome final scene – the men all stand aside as the two women face off. Mercedes shoots the Kid in the head then gets blasted by Joan, who walks off with Johnny.

McCambridge stares down Crawford…

…while Hayden hides behind some wood:

Empire calls it “a truly demented Western, with vividly colourful settings and and an almost operatic intensity of emotional and physical violence … Best of all, the film acts as a vigorous indictment of the McCarthy witch-hunts; as a lynch mob rides after Crawford while McCambridge bullies witnesses into false confessions.” I suppose so – unlike the mobs in The Sun Shines Bright the previous year or Lang’s Fury, this one has a ringleader who eggs them on. In fact, as soon as Mercedes is shot, they’ve lost their voice – nobody moves or says a word as Johnny escorts Crawford past them all. There’s little doubt that writer Ben Maddow (blacklisted for being a lefty shortly after winning an oscar for The Asphalt Jungle) would’ve held a grudge with McCarthy.

My favorite shot: the (sharply dressed) mob looks past the body of The Kid:

The Guardian: “It is difficult to describe what makes Johnny Guitar so fascinating, except to say that Ray’s orchestration of Philip Yordan’s almost literary screenplay gives a small budget film, made for Republic Studios, a kind of heady but clipped dignity.”