30 Great Westerns
Johnny Guitar

Joan Crawford and her men in Johnny Guitar.

Johnny Guitar has it all. There’s repressed Freudian urges: Emma (Mercedes MacCambridge) loves the Dancing Kid (Scott Brady) but her longing scares her righteous religious side -- so she considers killing him. There’s also gender-confusion, as a strong-willed woman (Vienna played with hard brittle by Joan Crawford) runs a saloon. Crawford, often shot in low-angle compositions with shoulders thrown back, exudes masculine confidence. Decked in a black shirt, pants, and boots, she totes a gun while smirking out of the left side of her mouth. Even Sam (Robert Osterloch), her croupier, in an apparent narrative aside quips, "Never seen a woman who was more a man. She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I’m not." And finally there’s a former lover and gunslinger who has changed his last name and traded in his six-gun for a guitar. Sterling Hayden as the soft-spoken title-character is a non-conformist who wears browns and clay reds and represents an earth-bound hero. He also offers one of cinema’s great meditations on living, a sort of non-sequitur absurdist break during a moment of intense rivalry between Emma’s gang and Vienna’s. "There’s nothing like a good smoke and a cup of coffee." But the transcendent power of Nicholas Ray’s film rests in its role as allegory.

Johnny Guitar (1954) is a film about the House Un-American Activities Committee, the fear of communists and the drive to have members of the Hollywood community name names. Shrouded in funeral black and lacking emotion or integrity, the townsfolk led by Emma and McIvers (Ward Bond) ferret out undesirables and force people to testify against them. In a haunting scene, young Turkey (Ben Cooper), a member of a gang of robbers, is held in a Christ-like crucifixion pose and asked to name the names of accomplices. "It was Vienna’s idea, wasn’t it? Tell us. Don’t be afraid, we’ll protect you," promises Emma, attempting to force a false confession. Turkey, fearing for his life, turns to Vienna who allows him to save himself. He falsely names Vienna as the ringleader, but gets lynched anyway. And Emma torches Vienna’s saloon, presiding over the damning fire like a demented witch.

This interrogation scene is rich with overtures of HUAC and what happened to the integrity of many actors. In 1951, Sterling Hayden faced a similar dilemma as did Turkey and in order to save his livelihood gave in to HUAC’s mob-like demands and named names. Playing Johnny Guitar must have been cathartic for him. Johnny’s gun crazy obsession and a desire to leave the past behind may have resonated with Hayden’s own need to find peace from his tortured conscience. Unable to accept who he is, Johnny/Hayden forges a new identity. By the film’s end, following his rescue of Vienna from a lynching and having reclaimed her love, he accepts his former self. The Dancing Kid, exclaims "Are you Johnny Logan?" And Hayden, no longer hiding behind a "front" acknowledges, "That’s the name friend."

Vienna, too, is punished because she represents difference. She is another one of Ray’s non-conformist heroes whose personal values oppose those of the righteous cattle baron rulers and therefore must be punished by the film’s allegorical extreme right. Alongside all the allegory, this film is a true delight to watch. The dialog, is, at times, equally campy and witty. Nicholas Ray’s symbolism and color choices are overtly intense, and his use of long-takes are sturdy and elegiac. But the biggest highlight for me is in an odd-bit of casting: Ward Bond (a true offscreen heavy and friend of HUAC who during the early '50s ferreted out industry "commies" as his patriotic duty) portrays a hate-mongering ideologue who ultimately seems to feel remorse for what he and his kind have wrought.

--by Grant Tracey