Mercedes McCambridge

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.

Worst Best Picture: Is All the King’s Men Better or Worse Than Crash?

all the king's men

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1949 winner All the King’s Men. Is it better than Crash?

When you look at all of these in a row, you start to see trends. Broderick Crawford, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Willie Stark in All the King’s Men, was a giant of his time and apparently a huge alcoholic. There may as well be a copy-and-pasted subsection on every Wikipedia page for every Best Actor winner from 1930 to 1980 that explains how they were hard to work with because they were drunk half the time. They’re all eerily consistent from person to person. Since I never met the man, I’ll have to review this movie without those specifics.

The film is a retelling of the Robert Penn Warren classic about a politician based on Huey Long, the legendary Louisiana governor. It focuses on the rise to power of Willie Stark, a self-made lawyer who has good intentions but is consumed by his own ambition once he gains power. In his early days, he is followed by an earnest reporter who is glad to have found an honest man, but that same reporter parallels his downfall as he forgoes his own principles to fall deeper into the inner circle of Willie Stark. The reporter, Jack Burden (John Ireland) is a memorable character, and the parallels help Stark feel like less of a super villain and more like an inevitability of the “power corrupts” idea. Stark still looms through every scene he’s in — he’s still exceptional, which is important — but his motivations seem easier to believe when compared with Burden’s.

It’s fantastically watchable for 1949. It immediately follows 1948’s extremely hard to watch version of Hamlet and though 1950 offers All About Eve, the 50s features a few weird selections before the decades start to even out. At 109 minutes it’s one of the shortest films on the list, and it feels that way. The entire rise-to-power sequence is wonderful. It all feels like you’re watching an already great man be discovered, and the featured speeches help you forget as an audience that this is the villain. That’s the sign of great political drama: you root for the bad guy!

One of the greatest strengths of All the King’s Men is wrapped up in that sentence. Is Willie Stark the bad guy? Things certainly get less complicated as he’s forced to make more and more drastic plays against his enemies, but the people behind this movie certainly want you to wonder about what’s driving all that. Is this the story of one man blinded by ambition or is this the story of ambition itself, and the way it always manifests itself in the powerful?

The Best Part: Mercedes McCambridge might not be a name you know, but she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Sadie Burke, Stark’s fast-talking campaign assistant. The story of great men is often the story of the women behind them, and though her performance is dwarfed by his much larger role, she’s not to be missed. She wields actual power within the Stark regime, but there’s a sadness to her that makes her complicated. Walter Burke is also great as Sugar Boy, Stark’s gun-toting, crazed sidekick.

The Worst Part: As the world starts to fall down around Willie Stark, he is largely undone from the inside. His son is arrested after driving drunk, which sets off a chain of events that includes Stark’s pay off attempts of the victims’ family and his son’s refusal to play football out of disgust with himself and his father. All of it makes sense as it happens, and there’s an argument that it’s disjointed because Stark’s life is becoming disjointed… but really it just feels messy compared to the tightness of the first hour. Add on a love triangle that I won’t even get into and there’s a little too much happening for a 100-minute political drama.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? There are weird choices that keep All the King’s Men from being one of the all-time greats on the list, but Broderick Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge turn in two performances for the ages. It’s a solid political drama with a point that has new relevance for the modern age, as presumably all political dramas will, forever. While the message of Crash carries as much timelessness as the “power corrupts” message of All the King’s Men, I don’t think Crash has any truly great performances. Everyone who is decent in it is better in something else. Even Terrence Howard, arguably the bright spot in Crash even though he has many of the silliest lines, is better in something else as Djay in Hustle & Flow, which earned him an Oscar nom. I know I’ve beaten this to death at this point, but even in trying to find the greatness in Crash the best I can come up with is “watch the people in it be better elsewhere.”

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at or on Twitter at @alexbad.