Johnny Guitar (1954)

Johnny Guitar (1954) is a bluff and luridly coloured fantasy Western, that has found its way on to the film noir style sheet by dint of its role reversin' fun, and its hard hitting characters. 

Joan Crawford is a saloon owner, holding on tight to her all-American right to stay on her land and not have it bought up by the corporate or in this case local interests who have their own ideas about the railroad that's rolling through.

The townspeople don't want her, for reasons that are not immediately obvious. 

But she has a nemesis; and just as she leads the saloon with its bored but well dressed staff of croupiers, the good townsfolk of this small and wild Arizona settlement, are lead by a similarly dangerous firebrand of a woman, in this case Emma small - - played by Mercedes McCambridge, whose vengeful vendetta seems to want her to see Joan Crawford driven out of town and hanged.

Romance, hatred and violence combine in Johnny Guitar to create one of the most popular noir Westerns in the canon.

Sterling Hayden as Johnny Guitar (1954)

Joan Crawford as Vienna in Johnny Guitar (1954)

Mercedes McCambridge - - mad as hell in Johnny Guitar (1954)

Joan's tream of rough and rowdy males also make an early appearance. At first, lead by 'The Dancing Kid' they appear to be a hard bunch, albeit puglisitic and idiotic in the form of Ernest Borgnine. 

But when they get back to their old mining shack - -  through the secret passage under the waterfall - - for which they all have handy waterproofs ready in their saddle-bags - -  it appears all as homo-erotically normal, as might be expected when four men attempt to make house in the wilderness. They grouch and moan and bitch at each other.

There's a dose of humour here, and although the costumes lack the snazzy flavour of real color Western camp and comedy, there are also some serious vendettas - - and the establishing scenes promise real threat. 

The two opposing interests, represented by Joan Crawford and her funky saloon, and the petty townsfolk that out-number them, there is certainly going to have to be one side which gives way and gives in.

'Guitar' can fix it?

Kind of tough guys in Johnny Guitar (1954)

Such fantasy elements are not hard to pin down, although the set for the saloon, which features deep Arizonian red rock walls, has a timeless and unique quality to it that outstrips any of the costumes.

True love in Arizona - Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden
Johnny Guitar (1954)

The first time we see this excellent saloon, is when Sterling Hayden wanders in, and the croupiers are standing magically patient, waiting for non-existent customers.

Sterling Hayden as Johnny 'Guitar' Logan orders a whisky, although several minutes later, when the gang turn up and he plays the Western peace card to calm down the bar, he is holding a tiny tea cup.

Joan Crawford as Vienna revives Ben Cooper as 'Turkey'
Johnny Guitar (1954)

The humour is manifest throughout, and the dialogue snaps and snaps. The red rock walls, the spooky crupiers and their roulette whell that spoins, while nobody plays, as well as the guitar itself, all combine to offer the fantasy quality which someohoe indoicates that anything could happen here.

In the 1971 western spoof Support Your Local Gunfighter, Ben Cooper parodies his own role as a young gunslinger in over his head. His role as 'Turkey' here is great, utterly tragic as the boy who wants to play with guns, but finds himself in too deep and too dead.

Johnny Guitar is also mentioned by the main hero of Jean-Luc Godard's 10th feature film, Pierrot Le Fou (1965) and in La Chinoise (1967) by Henri, who gets expelled from the revolutionary cell for defending the movie. In Weekend (1967), 'Johnny Guitar' is a call sign uttered into a walkie-talkie. Super popular with all movie lovers, as a slightly lurid and high-melodrama western-hybrid, we find even more in the way of references through the French New Wave.

While on the run, the murderous couple in François Truffaut's Mississippi Mermaid (La Sirène du Mississippi), played by Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve, go to a showing of Johnny Guitar in Lyon and discuss the film in the street afterwards.

The guitar too, as it is pointed out, is hardly a weapon of the Wild West. It maye have somehow contributed to the West, a fact which is also hinted at. But the real tools here are muscle and pistol, although it is of course unusual to see the pistols in the hads of women. 

Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar (1954)

To begin with, that is where we find the pistols too, as Joan Crawford holds of a crowd of arson-ous and hangin' wild citizens, with nerves of steel and a small six gun.

Vienna is a super-strong female lead, rare for a Western. Vienna and Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West have similar backstories in fact. Both may be former prostitutes who become saloonkeepers, and both own land where a train station will be built because of access to water. 

There is a large aspect of the Wild West that relies on these levels of anarchy to prevails. The stage is robbed, and not being able to prove much, nothing can be done other than the formation of an angry mob, with the promise of a lynchin'.

The suspects for the robbin' are old Johnny Guitar himself, simply because if the fact he is a lonesome stranger with a myserious attitude; and the gang of ne-er do wells whom it turns out are tru to their word; they aren't really touch guys, they are in fact failed silver propsectors.

The evil madness so beautifully and horrifyingly portrayed here is down to Mercedes McCambridge, the actress of radio, stage, film, and television that Orson Welles called  "the world's greatest living radio actress." She also plays an uncredited role in Touch of Evil, as a gang leader.

Mercedes McCambridge won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her screen debut in All the King's Men (1949) and was nominated in the same category for Giant (1956). She also provided the voice of the demon Pazuzu in The Exorcist (1973). In Johnny Guitar, McCambridge is demonic in the extremes, goading, rabble-rousing, mob-fuelling, hatred-piling and solid gunning for Joan Crawford.

Mercedes McCambridge as Emma Small, is constantly featured at the head of a mob, and there is not a scene in which she does not angrily demand that here arch enemy and fantasy nemesis Vienna, played by Joan Crawford is hanged by the neck. Other than the scene perhaps in which she burns Vienna's saloon to the ground.

Immediate lesbian overtones are evident. Given that several of the men, including The Dancing Kid, Turkey and Johnny 'Guitar' Logan are all daft for Vienna, it is only perhaps natural that McCambridge's character Emma Small is too. At one stage she seems top pause and think, and then stare at Vienna. And in that stare in that one moment, we see something other than the hatred, perhaps something akin to a question.

Johnny on Wikipedia

No comments:

Post a Comment