When Johnny Guitar first premiered in 1954, American audiences didn't know what to make of it. It was a Trucolor (similar to Technicolor) Western, but not like the other Westerns of the era. The two main adversaries weren't the law and the criminal, but rather saloon owner Vienna (Joan Crawford) and her rival Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), who opposes Vienna's efforts to bring the railroad through the town. Caught between them is Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), Vienna's ex-lover who carries a guitar instead of guns, and the Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady), whose posse is blamed for the murder of Emma's husband.
The film's director, Nicholas Ray, would follow-up Johnny Guitar with his most famous film, the James Dean-starring counterculture landmark Rebel Without a Cause (1955). However, Johnny Guitar shows the first strands of Ray working within the studio system to make something that's almost anti-Hollywood. And he does so from the very first scene, as excavators make way for the impending railroad.
It may be a little on-the-nose, but Ray is literally blowing up the Western.
More after the jump.
Unlike many Westerns of the era, the plot doesn't really follow the structure of lawman versus bandit, nor does it set up white man versus Native Americans (in fact, Native Americans aren't even mentioned). Instead, it's basically a tale of anarchy, the local marshall (Frank Ferguson) rendered completely inept by Emma and her rabid gang of locals. In fact, the film opens with Johnny witnessing the murder in question, though he's too far away to make out who the bandits are.
Yet he does nothing to help. Instead, he makes his way to Vienna's, where everything quickly unravels. Emma comes in blaming Vienna and the Dancin' Kid, the latter of whom has a pretty pitiful (if ultimately true) alibi, and Vienna and company are given 24 hours to get out of town. Again, that ultimatum is not issued by the marshall, but rather McIvers (Ward Bond), another local. Naturally, blood will be shed.
It's remarkable, because the anarchic plot feels most true to what we know about Western expansion in the 19th century. More often than not, anarchy ruled instead of the law, and most lawmen were ineffectual in their roles either through being outnumbered or in league with the crooks they were supposed to stop. But more than that, it features a strong break from the Westerns of the time, particularly in its anti-McCarthyism subtext. Its contemporaries, like High Noon (1952), used those clear-cut notions of good and evil in its message about the foolishness of Senator McCarthy's "witch hunt" for Communists in Hollywood, but in Johnny Guitar, it's a mutually-assured destruction. Obsession consumes everyone, most to bitter ends.
The film also stands out for its female leads, a rarity in a genre noted for rugged masculinity. Crawford's Vienna is, naturally, tough-as-nails, a woman you wouldn't want to double-cross and who can make it just fine on her own, thank you. McCambridge's Emma is a woman with possibly-conflicting desires, consumed with rage over the death of her husband (or is it her attraction to the Dancin' Kid?) to the point of killing anyone who stands in her way. Their conflict forms the crux of the film's narrative, with men like Johnny - the traditional heroes in these tales - are relegated to the roles of sidekicks.
Their showdown inspires some of the scenes most memorable images. The best example is this scene around the film's halfway point, when Emma and her posse come to Vienna's to finally run her out of town. They arrive hoping to find the Dancin' Kid and his gang as well, but when they come in the door, they only find Vienna, dressed in a pure white dress (her most "feminine" costume in the film) sitting at her piano, playing to an empty room.
The colors are fantastic: the white standing out against the red rock wall, the way Vienna is positioned deep in the frame and centered. She looks almost like an angel, even though she's anything but.
Emma's not impressed, either. What's fantastic about this particular shot is not only the staging itself - Emma in the center, smugly smiling, with her posse fanning out behind her - but how representative of the film's influence it is. A quick glimpse of the frame could be easily mistaken for a shot from, say, a Quentin Tarantino film, or perhaps a Russ Meyer film. Looking at this frame, or this whole scene, is to see a microcosm of why European new-wavers were so drawn to this film. The colors are bold, the staging is impactful, and the banter is writerly. It's exactly the kind of film that twists Hollywood convention.
The final showdown, again, is framed like a traditional Western: blue sky, barren terrain, a single structure. But look closely at the frame again: there's Johnny behind the log, in a place that's not where the male gunslinger is conventionally. It's the two women, hellbent on destroying each other, who are about to square off. Ray blew up the Western with this film, and as a result proved his counterculture credentials and helped kick off a new era in cinema.