Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Johnny Guitar (Ray. 1954)

"Spin the wheel. I like the way it sounds."


The western is a genre of film that carries its very own visual. When someone says they would like to watch a western, your mind almost automatically envisions John Wayne riding horseback to save the day from the horrible Indians (Native Americans, Mr. Wayne). This image is rather difficult to combat because the majority of popular western films do fall under that visual. But through the 1077 Films to See Before You Die I have found a western that is completely different. Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar is one of the most interesting films I have ever seen - especially from its particular genre.

In 1954, Nicholas Ray had not yet made his masterpiece, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), but he was still a well known filmmaker. When Joan Crawford bought the rights to a novel that was set in the American West with a tough female protagonist, Ray was almost instantly signed on to direct. This was the first step to making Johnny Guitar an interesting movie. Because if we know anything about Nicholas Ray, we know he likes to create some very specific undertones in his films.

It is commonly known that Ray directed one of the most homoerotic "man films" of all time with Rebel. And this would later become a trademark of his feature films. Some critics, like Roger Ebert, like to argue that this trend started with Johnny Guitar.

The film tells the story of a woman who owns a saloon on the outskirts of a small town. This woman, Vienna, is played by the noticeably manly looking Joan Crawford. She presents herself like a man and carries a gun like a man for the majority of the picture. She is loud, confident and structured. And though we are told that she is in love with Johnny Guitar, we never really feel their chemistry. Is this a Nicholas Ray look into bisexualism? Vienna is a man on the inside, and an unfortunate looking female on the outside. In fact, one famous line in the film has Vienna's bartender stating that he "never met a woman who was more man."

But this is not all that hides below the surface of Johnny Guitar. Vienna has an enemy in "town" by the name of Emma. This bitch is crazy. She is supposedly in love with the Dancin' Kid (one of the few other characters) and loathes Vienna because the Kid is in love with her instead. This is a surfaced plot-pusher because it becomes obvious who Emma is actually obsessed with.

Underneath it all, I am convinced that Emma and Vienna had a sexual relationship prior to the events happening in the film. Their hatred is very personal, and Emma uses words like "tramp" to describe Vienna's completely moral behavior. Their chemistry is through the roof, and the sexual tension between the two is thick. I am not sure if Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge knew what type of film they were making, but I would guess that Ray knew what type of film he was directing.

You can also feel the undertones in the way that the men in the film are treated. Though the picture is entitled Johnny Guitar, it is not really about his story. Guitar just rides into town with nothing but a...you guessed it....guitar, and we eventually learn that he is an ex-gunman and former lovers of Vienna's. Other than that, he is relatively unimportant to the whole thing. He, like all other male characters, is turned into a paste in his dealings with either Vienna or Emma. I am not sure if I have ever seen a western that had such little focus on the leading men. This is unfortunate, because Sterling Hayden is outstanding.

I have a hard time believing that Nicholas Ray was trying to make a western with this movie. He had an understanding of his source material that the rest of his cast may have lacked. But this is a film about a woman scorned. What happened to her? We never find out. But we do get to see how it ends. This is one of the quirkier and most roundabout films I have ever seen. Watch it as an entertaining western or as a messed up love rectangle. Either way, I think you will like it.

Johnny Guitar: B



My Next Film...American Beauty (Mendes. 1999)

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