“I’m a stranger here myself.” ~ Sterling Hayden as Johnny Guitar
In watching even only a handful of Nicholas Ray films, it’s possible to discern fairly quickly that his films are often about the marginalized outsiders. Rebel Without a Cause (1955) is the most iconic example but this theme goes a lot further than that single movies. He even plays with the same ideas in Johnny Guitar his extraordinarily distinctive western from 1954.
There are other westerns that open like this. A stranger (Sterling Hayden) riding through the mountains and making his way to the nearest town. He overlooks a stagecoach robbery going down and miners blasting away at a mountain with dynamite. There must be a purpose to it all but the significance fails to resonate quite yet.
He goes to the local watering hole: Vienna’s. Except there’s no one there. It’s a ghost town. There are only a few solitary figures working the roulette wheels and the bar. No one else. But still, the stranger walks in as if he’s meant to be there. We don’t know why yet.
By all accounts, Sterling Hayden wasn’t much a cowboy but he had the presence of one. In the movies sometimes that’s enough. Here’s the eponymous Johnny Guitar, the man with his instrument strapped to his shoulder with little stake in the local goings-on.
Namely, the grudge match brewing between the hotel’s fierce proprietress Vienna (the always cutthroat Joan Crawford) and fiery western lass Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) who packs a whole posse of cattlemen including ornery John McIvers (the venerable Ward Bond). It doesn’t help matters that Vienna opens her doors to the despised Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) and his cronies.
We, like Johnny, have no particular stake in their quarrel though there is a sense of some past grievances. In fact, everyone seems to have a history but we are hardly ever given a nibble, never through flashback and rarely in exposition.
Nicholas Ray creates a gorgeous world in color that showcases some of the most attractive imagery of the West in Classic Hollywood on par with The Searchers (1956) and Rio Bravo (1959). And it boasts an equally colorful array of characters including quality supporting cast members like Bond, Ben Cooper, Ernest Borgnine, Royal Dano, John Carradine, Frank Ferguson, and Paul Fix.
But the subversion of all norms begins with Joan Crawford, the woman who loves the sound of the roulette wheels spinning, ever severe, packing a six-shooter in her blue jeans. While the TruColor does much to enhance not only the scenery but her performance as her piercing eyes burn through everyone she stares down. Johhny Guitar might be in our title but Vienna is our undisputed star.
The relish of the film is perfectly rendered by the complete lack of clarity initially. It’s trying to get a line on everyone in an attempt to understand what’s going on as their allegiances are made fairly evident. It’s a matter of picking a side. But the sides are incredibly difficult to decipher. In fact, even in her moments of complete innocence, it helps her character that Crawford very rarely comes off as a sympathetic person — in reality or on the screen. So if she’s our protagonist then we’re in for a tough outing.
Of course, the feud that’s central to the tale was also twofold unraveling on both sides of the camera. Mercedes McCambridge and Joan Crawford loathed each other to put it lightly. They probably wanted to tear each other’s hair out and while not the most benevolent of relationships, it undoubtedly stoked the fires of the film’s drama. In fact, it seems like there weren’t many people who did like working with Crawford. Hayden never wanted to be in another picture with her again either. Still, once more, it all functions in front of the camera exquisitely.
There’s certainly some truth in drawing up parallels with George Stevens’ Shane (1953) but the moral lines are a lot more jumbled and the intentions of the plot far less direct. Shane is a success because it’s a fine piece of classical storytelling still underlined with an imminent threat. Johnny Guitar is beguiling because it breaks with all the conventions of the West while still carrying its own amount of subtext that’s hard to figure.
Should we even care that the posse gets these men? But you see, that’s nearly beside the point. It’s not about right or wrong but this muddled center controlled by Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden. The man and the woman with a bit of a past but not enough that they will fall into each other’s arms and live a faithful life at one another’s side. That’s just not in their nature. Still, riding the fence proves to be a taxing ordeal.
We witness the most peculiar bank robbery as far back as I can remember committed by the local outlaws who until they ran off with the loot hadn’t exactly done anything wrong, in spite of being despised by a whole town. In other words, they played the roles expected of them. Then, a pair of hangings takes place but instead of your typical unrepentant criminals being strung up, you have a kid and a woman both ending up with a rope around their necks. The enforcers’ stomachs begin to churn uneasily. This isn’t how mob justice is supposed to work.
Subsequently, the battle to subdue the frontier is brought home with the most unconventional showdown in the western canon that’s fundamentally also one of the most stunning. It blows up in your face and then leaves you questioning this entire ordeal.
Peggy Lee’s title track is used to sing them out as one final note in this dazzling western courtesy of Nicholas Ray; dazzling for the very reason that it does everything contrary to what we have learned. It continually makes a conscious choice to upend the accepted script attached to the mythology of the West, rewriting its own narrative full of vivid imagery and equally blistering outcomes.