Warning: Spoilers for the film follow.
You ever have one of those films that you know you should have seen long before now, but for some reason it just kept getting pushed to the back burner? Nicholas Ray’s 1954 film Johnny Guitar has been one of those films for me, and I am so glad that I finally got around to seeing it.
The film centers on Vienna (Joan Crawford), whose saloon sits square in the path of the encroaching railroad. Staunchly opposed to everything Vienna stands for is Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), who resents the affection that the outlaw known “The Kid” (Scott Brady) bears for her. When Vienna hires her old flame Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), it sets in motion the chain of events that will change all of their lives.
While Nicholas Ray’s direction is certainly evident at every moment of the film–from the sometimes painterly compositions to the emotional intensity of the drama–the reality is that it’s the clash between Joan’s Vienna and Mercedes’ Emma that lights up the screen with flames as bright as those that eventually consume Vienna’s saloon. Throughout the film, Emma serves as a sort of avenging fury, pursuing Vienna with a fiery passion that leads her to goad the men in town to do her bidding. McCambridge has a high-strung vocal power that remains me of Ethel Merman, which allows her to be a fitting foil for the more inward-facing intensity of Crawford. Their first confrontation, with Vienna positioned above Emma, while their conversation is conveyed in a series of closer shots, is one of the best in the entire film.
Indeed, the film’s narrative is structured around two interlocking love triangles. On the one hand are Vienna, Johnny, and the Kid; on the other are Emma, Vienna, and the Kid. Needless to say, given that it’s Mercedes and Joan we’re talking about, there’s a lot of ambiguity about who Emma really desires and why exactly it is that she hates Vienna with such a fiery passion. When Vienna ultimately shoots Emma, she also seems to be killing part of herself as well.
If I’ve largely ignored the male cast so far, there’s a reason for that. As solid as Sterling Hayden’s performance is, he’s always overshadowed by the two women. It’s worth pointing out, though, that the supporting male cast is a surprisingly talented bunch, and they help to elevate the film at some of its weaker moments.
Generically, the film sits at a somewhat awkward confluence of genres: part western, part melodrama, and perhaps some other bits thrown in there as well. In his commentary on the film, Martin Scorsese says that the film is operatic, and that strikes me as the most accurate way to describe the film’s affective register. Much as I love both Joan and Mercedes, they are definitely turning in performances dialed up to about an 11 on the melodrama scale, and while I personally love that type of performance, I can understand why it falls so easily into the category of camp (with all of the dismissiveness that all too frequently entails).
Critics frequently point out that the film can be read as an allegory about the paranoia of the McCarthy era, but to my mind an equally valid (and less reductive) reading would focus on the fact that Vienna is an emblem of modernity. Not only is she a woman who sets out to get what she wants, she is repeatedly associated with the railroad. Indeed, Emma goads the men on to ever greater violence by suggesting that because of Vienna they will find their customary freedoms curtailed by an influx of settlers from the east. The fact that Vienna emerges victorious and alive after all of Emma’s attempts suggests, I would argue, the ultimate triumph of modernity over the violence of the lawless, archaic west.
So, while it might be a flawed film (since we all have to make that caveat), I continue to find Johnny Guitar an extraordinary film full of richness and depth that a camp reading unfortunately effaces. The film is ultimately a testament to the ways in which one director can subvert the rules of genre and create a film that endlessly fascinates.