"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Johnny Guitar (Republic, 1954)

A camp classic

When it came out, this film puzzled Western lovers in the US. It looked like a Western but it was so stylized and arty and passionate that they thought perhaps it wasn’t one. European auteuriste critics loved it, as Martin Scorsese says in his intro on the DVD, exactly because of those qualities.

There’s a lot of symbolism here. At the lynching party, Vienna (Joan Crawford,who bought the rights to the novel in the first place), first seen in slinky black man’s attire with low-slung gunbelt, a look she appeared to have borrowed from Jane Russell in Son of Paleface, is now in a virginal white dress, about to be hanged by Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) in her jet black.

Playing with black & white

Nicholas Ray is playing with the black-hat baddies/white-hat goodies tradition. Color plays a vital part in the movie (shot by Harry Stradling Sr. in Republic's Trucolor): the vivid primary colors of the character’s clothes (bright and rich in the restored print) are set against the deep red Arizona earth and the washed greens of much of the scenery and set. The blue was suppressed. Why? Ask an artist. Or an auteuriste.

Primary colors

There’s an all-female showdown beloved of feminists where Crawford and McCambridge play out the cliché of the macho-male main street shoot-out in the final reel. There are simmering passions as Vienna dallies with both The Dancing Kid (Scott Brady; I wish it had been Dan Duryea but still I always like Scott) and the eponymous hero (Sterling Hayden, very good indeed in an unusual role for him).

It's all role reversal. Women in gunbelts, women hating more than men and possibly loving women more than men. Crawford's character seems to want to emasculate her men. Johnny, brought in as a gunman, seems to have given up guns and croons softly to the sound of a sweet guitar. The barman observes to Johnny, "I never met a woman who was more man." Her lover-hater Emma also has men, even quite tough men, as mere lackeys.

McCambridge's Emma loves and hates The Kid too. She is magnificently malevolent, glistening with evil, splendidly vile. It must have been her greatest ever performance. She hints at lesbian lust and jilted fury. In her long cattle-baroness's dress with inevitable gunbelt, with her mad smiles and pyromaniac glee, she simply seethes with sex.

Pyromaniac glee

Apparently Crawford wanted Claire Trevor for the role but McCambridge was perfect as a butch angel of death.

Despite the ultra-low budget, there is very strong supporting acting (Borgnine, Bond, Carradine, Dano, Ferguson).

There's a (presumably deliberately) melodramatic screenplay credited to Philip Yordan, fronting for blacklisted Ben Maddow, from the Roy Chanslor novel. In fact the whole thing is melodrama squared. The Victor Young music is portentous and dramatic (he rather did portentous so was a good choice).

Excellent supporting cast led by Ward Bond in the churchlike saloon. That's Frank Ferguson as sheriff.

The bandits' lair is rather good, reached through a waterfall, copied from Chapter V of Riders of the Purple Sage.

The whole thing owed more than a little to Rancho Notorious (1952) and Ray must have seen that movie. The RKO B-ness, the lurid, painted sets, the primary colors and the dominant woman boss of the rancho all fed into Johnny Guitar. But it outstrips Rancho big time; in the last resort, Fritz Lang's effort is turgid. Johnny is brilliant and weird.

It came at a time, the late 1940s/early 1950s, when Westerns were trying to rid themselves of the image of matinée children's serials and soppy singing cowboys and be films for grown-ups. It was the time of the muscly James Stewart Westerns with Delmer Daves and Anthony Mann, Gregory Peck in the somber The Gunfighter, John Ford's cavalry trilogy. Johnny Guitar is many things but a movie for kids it ain't.

Is Johnny Guitar a Republic B-Western? It is and it isn’t. Implausible, overwrought, made on the cheap, stylized, Freudian and passionate, Johnny Guitar is a classic (now) to boggle over. It's certainly political, as the townsfolk fall over themselves to get each other to testify to their orthodoxy and their neighbors' subversion (1954 was the height of the HUAC witch hunts). The Great Guru Brian Garfield says, “It is a mesmerizing experience: one of the great good-bad movies.” To me it seems like a Western in drag, a camp classic. But I love it and I think it was a Nicholas Ray masterpiece.


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