Johnny Guitar (1954)

Johnny Guitar (1954) movie poster

director Nicholas Ray
viewed: 07/31/2015

Johnny Guitar wouldn’t be the first cinema classic that I didn’t totally get.

I would be willing to bet that I wouldn’t be the first one to not get Johnny Guitar.

It’s a very strange film.  It’s a Western, sure, but it’s so weird.  Joan Crawford is markedly uncanny as Vienna, the woman who runs her gambling house near a spot of a future railroad, but who is despised by the locals.  Mercedes McCambridge is the mousy troll who is stoking the fires against Vienna, spurred by her unrequited feelings for The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), who has a thing for Vienna.  Enter into this picture the titular Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), who plays well and shoots even better for a guy who doesn’t carry a gun.

The film is rife with subtexts, but also rife with campy bizarreness.  Crawford is both and earnest actress and an over-the-top figure of a woman with her stark lipstick and 50’s eyebrows and those wide-open eyes.  Dress her in blue jeans and strap a pistol to her hip and you’ve got some interesting gender politics going on at Vienna’s saloon.  After all, she has three devoted men working for her in her business, none more so that Old Tom (John Carradine), the most devout of the three.

There is also a Red Scare subtext, a witch hunt for the undesirables of the town which may seem more obvious than it did in 1954 (or maybe it was obvious then, too?  Who knows?)

It’s a strange film.  More atypical and anomalous than straightforward genre pic.

It’s oddity jars throughout, but somewhere along the line, I think I started enjoying it more.  By the end of it, I was thinking to myself, “What did I just watch?”  It’s something that probably makes more sense the more you have seen it, somehow becomes better the more you stop thinking it’s going to be like any other Western you’ve ever seen and just give in to the odd character of the film.

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