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Nicholas Ray may be best known for Rebel Without a Cause, but also directed In a Lonely Place, an incredible noir story about a screenwriter with a temper. Humphrey Bogart plays the lead, and he’s charming in that way that only Bogey can be. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that this flaw will undo all of his efforts, but Gloria Grahame still wants to make this work. As with all noir, the style trumps the substance, but it’s a phenomenal piece of character work and it holds that tense, sad mood without falling off the edge.
Ray is a “director’s director” in a way, though he’s made a ton of great films he’s more often someone you’ll come across when you’re listening to another director talk about great filmmakers. Jean-Luc Godard said that Ray “is cinema” which is, I think, as high praise as you can possibly get.
In between In a Lonely Place and Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray made a handful of movies. The one that you’ll see on a list of “best” films of the era is the Western Johnny Guitar. I will confess to putting this one off for years, mostly based on the name. In a Lonely Place is one of my favorite movies, but this is a Western called Johnny Guitar. What can you possibly expect?
There are only a handful of Westerns on the lists of great films. It’s an inherently American genre, which cuts into the possibilities. It’s a genre that’s really heavy on tropes and established understanding. There are obviously exceptions to the rule, but even the iconic Westerns tend to end up following similar morality plays and similar paths to victory. This is by design, with “white hat” and “black hat” characters with limited complexity to get to the good stuff quicker.
You could make this same claim for any other genre (what great romance is truly more complex at the core than “the guy/girl gets the guy/girl”?) but it feels appropriate to describe Westerns this way when approaching Johnny Guitar. Many Westerns are more complicated than the A to B story I’m implying, but in the 1950s they didn’t always bend the genre. Nicholas Ray was just a few years past one of the greatest film noir stories of the time, so it makes sense that he’d try to find that sensibility within a Western.
Joan Crawford plays Vienna, the fiery owner of a local drinking establishment that offers “cards and whiskey” to the rough crowds that are willing to leave town to find fun. Sterling Hayden enters early as Johnny Guitar, a seemingly brash yet peaceful wandering musician. He carries no guns and may be the only person in the saloon without a drawn weapon and a desire to use it.
The local law threatens to shut Vienna down to keep the peace and to pacify Emma Small, the woman-in-black rival played by Mercedes McCambridge. It becomes clear that Johnny Guitar is actually Johnny Logan, famed gunslinger, and Vienna has to decide if she’s willing to fight with him to keep her way of life or if the opposition is too strong.
So far, this is all standard Western fare. The leader of the black hats is The Dancin’ Kid, played by Western mainstay Scott Brady. His gang has some other familiar players for the genre, but also Ernest Borgnine. It wasn’t his only Western, but he’s recognizable enough from his career of character work that he adds some humor and some off-kilter sensibility to the whole thing.
The reveal that Johnny Guitar is actually a legend of the West happens just about immediately and he never picks the guitar up again. He’s so famous that his name alone shocks every person that hears it, but not so famous that anyone recognizes him, somehow. These are the old days, just go with it.
Once the cast is established and it’s clear that Emma won’t let Vienna live, it becomes a story about the willingness to use violence to advance your station. The bad guys are bad because it’s a way to get by. Johnny was a gunfighter, but it made him twisted and he’s tried to go straight and deny the impulses. Even Vienna wants to get away from small-town stuff and industrialize her business before the railroad comes in and they lose the war on progress either way.
The townsfolk represent the resistance to the inevitable. They balk at making choices and they seem fine to preserve the status quo, even if it means a band of obvious criminals wanders around. This is what they understand, we come to realize, and everything else represents a fear to be avoided.
Crawford had been in films for three decades and this would be one of her last great works, but Hayden was still rising. Nearly everything he’s remembered for would follow Johnny Guitar. This isn’t either of their best work, but it’s compelling to see them work together. They have to sell you on a love from five years ago through small details, knowing looks, and a resistance to going back to those people in those days. It works, mostly, especially in shots where we see only the two leads in a room of dozens of people. Most of the acting is in these looks and the decisions we watch silently while Johnny Guitar has to decide if he’s going to be Johnny Logan again or not.
Everyone was either having an affair with someone else or deeply hated everyone else while making this, but not that you’d notice it in the finished product. McCambridge plays her role so one-note that she’s shaking with anger or screaming for blood in every scene, so it’s hard to imagine her being any way off screen influencing her choices. There’s very little attempt made to make us side with her, but in a movie so full of dashing rogues, she really has no shot.
Contemporary reviews called it a Western cliché, which is bizarre for how often it runs away from those ideas. They called Crawford “sexless,” similarly weird given how much time is spent on the suggestion that she slept her way to the top. She was a decade older (or more, her age is famously impossible to pin down) than her co-star, but she’s clearly the center of the movie. In the decades after the initial quiet, this became one of the greats of the genre and a movie that people steal and borrow from often.
This is a romance set in the West, not a Western with a romance in it, and it spends a lot of time on some really forward thinking concepts like the morality of industrialization and if you should run from progress or milk it. It’s not the director’s best work or any of actors’ standout pictures, but the sum of the parts is extremely watchable and really something special, even if you don’t typically enjoy Westerns.
Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yes. Blowup is possibly held in even higher esteem and was more well-liked at the time it came out, but I don’t think it’s a better movie. Johnny Guitar really sets the bar with establishing scenes in a way I want to call out. I was frustrated by the first half of Blowup but really noted how immediately Johnny Guitar established the world it wanted us to understand. We care about why people react the way they do, even down to the cowardly townsfolk.
Is it the best movie of all time? No, it probably doesn’t bring enough to any genre to satisfy fans of just one, and McCambridge’s demonic villain is one-note. It’s inarguably great and surprisingly watchable, but not better than Badlands. It also ends with a song, which was fine for the time but is laugh-out-loud funny now. The ending is much more nuanced than the big beaming smiles and fun song suggest, which lands really strangely. It’s a small thing, but it’s something you’ll definitely notice. It’s exactly like Cat Ballou, but that was supposed to be a comedy.
You can watch Johnny Guitar on Amazon Prime. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.