The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - JOHNNY GUITAR | The Movie Waffler

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Blu-Ray Review - JOHNNY GUITAR

johnny guitar review
A saloon-keeper stands up to the female cattle baron set on destroying her.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Nicholas Ray

Starring: Joan Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge, Sterling Hayden, Scott Brady, Ernest Borgnine, Ward Bond, Royal Dano, Ben Cooper

johnny guitar bluray

While women were overwhelmingly relegated to supporting figures in the top-billed westerns of the 1950s, several b-westerns of the era put them front and centre. Movies like Cattle Queen of Montana and Forty Guns gave Barbara Stanwyck's career an extension after she had reached the age at which Hollywood tends to discard its leading ladies. Arguably the most famous female-fronted western of the '50s stars another actress of Stanwyck's vintage, Joan Crawford.

In the Republic production of Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar, it's not Sterling Hayden's eponymous guitar picker who takes centre stage but rather Crawford's saloon owner, Vienna.

johnny guitar review

Vienna has spent her life using her feminine charms to get ahead. Early on, through some not so subtle dialogue, we learn that Vienna seduced a railroad surveyor to learn that the railroad was set to be built on the outskirts of Red Butte. With this info she has built a saloon cum gambling den. Business is slow now, but once that railroad comes through…


The townsfolk of Red Butte aren't too happy with the idea of drinking, gambling and carousing in their town. Led by cattle baron Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), they've been looking for an excuse to run Vienna out of town. They think they've found it when a stagecoach is held up and its driver killed. Vienna is accused of harbouring the men responsible – The Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady) and his gang (Ernest Borgnine, Royal Dano and Ben Cooper) - because she allows them to drink in her establishment.

It soon becomes clear that Emma has another motive for getting rid of Vienna. She's secretly in love with the Dancin' Kid, even if she can't bring herself to admit it, but he only has eyes for Vienna. She might even be in love with Vienna too, but she certainly won’t admit that.

johnny guitar review

I almost forgot to mention Johnny Guitar himself. Has any titular western hero ever been so incidental? This is so much the Crawford vs McCambridge card that poor old Hayden might as well pull up a ringside seat and enjoy the sparring of his leading not-so-ladies.

Hayden's Johnny - whom we learn is Johnny Logan, a notorious gunslinger who traded his six-shooter for a six-string several years ago – has a rivalry of his own. He's in love with Vienna, which puts him in competition with the Dancin' Kid. Curiously, the rivalry between the two men here is played out in the same fashion as two supporting female characters bickering over a handsome leading man in a more conventional western. While the threat of violence lurks between Vienna and Emma, Johnny and The Kid mostly just trade bitchy verbal insults. The climactic duel is not between Johnny and The Kid but between Vienna and Emma. The men don’t fight over the women in Johnny Guitar. In Ray's film the men are the prize.


Johnny Guitar was fashioned as an allegory for the McCarthy witch hunt, with Emma and her posse a stand-in for McCarthy and his goons. Vienna is constantly pressured to hand over the Kid and his gang, with the threat that she'll be persecuted if she refuses to do so. Watching Ray's film today, the dynamic between Vienna and Emma plays more like a representation of America's ongoing culture war. Emma and her followers are conservatives who view Vienna as representing everything they view as corrupt. In a clever trick, Ray has them decked out in funeral outfits for most of the movie, while Vienna wears a lily white gown, the costumes telling us whom the director views as the hero and villains of his film.

johnny guitar review

Rather than making the mistake of trying to fool the audience into believing they're watching a more expensive western, Ray makes the most of his meagre budget by containing the action almost exclusively to Vienna's bar and its immediate surrounds. It's one of the all-time great movie sets, with a distinctive rock wall at one end like that famous football stadium in Portugal. I'd love to spend an evening knocking back shots of rye there myself.

Johnny Guitar could easily be translated to the stage. Ray uses an unconventionally long opening scene that runs for over 30 minutes to set the scene. Reminiscent of The Petrified Forest or The Plough and the Stars, this scene brings all the major players and their various subplots into one setting. We watch as they (literally, in one case) dance around one another, laying out their motivations. Johnny Guitar himself is the first to arrive, but within minutes we realise that if we've come for his music, we're staying for Vienna and Emma's sparring.
Extras:

New commentary by critic Geoff Andrew, author of 'The Films of Nicholas Ray: The Poet of Nightfall'; new video essays by Tony Rayns and David Cairns; new interview with Susan Ray; trailer; and archival intro by Martin Scorsese.

Johnny Guitar
 is on UK blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment on September 20th.