Joan Crawford

Is Johnny Guitar the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

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 @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is What Ever Happened to Baby Jane the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Trailers were very different in the 1960s, which is how we come to the marketing strategy for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane before release in 1962. An ominous voice explains that this is a horror picture and it features Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as we’ve never seen them before. Strangely, the narration cautions that viewers need to know that before they decide to see it, and then demands further: “We beg you, as the tension builds to the screaming point, as shock after shock assaults your senses, try to remember that this is only a motion picture. Try and remember!”

This is a big claim to live up to, especially the insistence that we might forget this isn’t a real event. Once you take in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, though, you begin to understand why this was the angle. The stars really hated each other, famously, and the professional conflict was so rich that it spawned an entire season of television more than four decades later.

Feud was supposed to be a series of individual seasons of feuds between famous figures. It was cancelled after one season, so it exists as a standalone eight episodes called Bette and Joan about the production of and response to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. I watched it before I saw the film, and I do think that’s the order you should do it in if you haven’t seen either one and are going to watch both. Susan Sarandon is particularly good as Bette Davis, despite the big shoes to fill. Jessica Lange gives a quieter, maybe more convincing, portrayal of Joan Crawford. It’s all kinda true and probably real and maybe this is something, is the vibe you get, and as long as that lens stays it holds together.

It’s hard to divorce the film from that context. These are two of the biggest stars in film history at the end of their careers, playing characters well past the end of their careers, and it is deliberately metatextual. I don’t know how much intent you can assign, but Davis and Crawford knew that their performances as washed-up characters would be read as commentary on their respective places in Hollywood. Davis went much bigger with a much crazier role and ended up nominated for an Oscar, but even with that, this is the end for both of them. They had to know that was a possibility.

Roger Ebert spends an entire paragraph of his review of the film debunking a story about one actress kicking the other hard enough to require stiches during production. It’s time swell spent, because there is a lot more discourse about how this got made than there is about what actually got made. I realize this a long runway at this point, but it’s necessary because what is on the screen isn’t as important as what happened around it. By marketing the movie this way, the studio co-opted decades of film history and fan appreciation for two legendary performers. It must be reckoned with before you even talk about the plot.

Bette Davis plays “Baby Jane” Hudson, who was a child star that couldn’t translate success into adulthood. Joan Crawford is her older sister Blanche, who was jealous as a child but grew into a star with a higher ceiling. Blanche’s career is cut short by a car accident that leaves her paralyzed and we open with her under the care of the very drunk, very sad “Baby Jane.”

There are a lot of places to take that opening and most of them aren’t good. The go-to from more modern film is probably Misery, another bedridden piece of tension driven by a maniac’s unwillingness to release their “captive.” Both films look at different causes for mania, but it’s hard to not see one in the other, depending on which you’ve seen first. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane really hammers home the fact that “Baby Jane” is jealous and furious with her sister and that she is never going to let this go.

The word you will find in reviews of this movie is “camp.” Nearly everyone calls it campy because of Bette Davis’ makeup and her choice to play “Baby Jane” at 11/10 the entire time. She screeches half of her lines and somehow escalates her already way-too-big performance into even more during the climax. By the end of the movie, she’s barely human. It’s a really risky set of decisions and it really is fairly exhausting to watch.

Crawford’s fear, however, feels very real. When you get lost in the conflict, it’s in the moments that Blanche is alone, scheming, trying to find a way out of a room she knows she can’t leave. The conflict between the sisters (on and off screen) is the hook, but I think the struggle is more fascinating when “Baby Jane” is an off-screen threat.

The secondary characters force Crawford and Davis to advance their rivalry, but mostly it’s the two stars. The climax is anything but predictable, but it’s also not really the point. The ending is ambiguous, as much because that’s a more compelling choice as it is a choice that doesn’t really change the experience. The journey is generally more important than the destination, but it’s especially true for a movie that depends on rising tension as much as this one.

I was genuinely surprised by what What Ever Happened to Baby Jane turned out to be, given the world around it. It’s much more suspenseful than the “camp” legacy would suggest and Crawford especially turns in a performance that I think is worth seeing. Bette Davis risked more, to be sure, and she is rightfully the one who got the credit, but just like in the dramatic representation of Feud, the quieter choice seems harder to pull off. You need both or you don’t have a monster movie, though, and that’s certainly what this is. The best bits are in the middle, which is bittersweet as a commentary on Crawford and Davis as well as the film itself, but that’s how most things go. It’s also fascinating to see what comes after, for people who are willing to envision an “after.”

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I do think this is a better movie than Aguirre, Wrath of God. Both feature a mad, boiled-over main character who rages at everyone else. Aguirre is even bigger than Baby Jane, mostly because of circumstance and the sword and armor he’s got, but both of them would probably handle each other’s circumstances the same way. These are two similar character studies, but the focus in Herzog’s film on only the character study, with nothing else, limits what that movie can say.

Is it the best movie of all time? Yep, on this short list of three so far, I think so far What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is the current best movie of all time. I don’t really care for the twist ending, which isn’t giving anything away to say, and I really like Roger Ebert’s point in his review that the premise here is a little thin. Why do these people live together and why is “Baby Jane” in charge, given how she barely is able to move around in the world? It doesn’t matter for the panic to feel real, but it would for the thing to hold together completely.

You can watch What Ever Happened to Baby Jane for $1.99 on Amazon. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.