Commercially unavailable for a long time, Nicholas Ray’s wildly entertaining Johnny Guitar is now showing as part of a Ray retrospective at Film Forum in Manhattan, which should mean a long-overdue DVD release in the near future. And that’s great news for Ray fans—with its powerful women and many deaths, Johnny Guitar carves out a unique niche in an era dominated by tame, male-centric pictures. Like some of the great American films of the 50′s, Johnny Guitar breaks through a mold.
Ray loves hot-blooded protagonists with feverish tempers: Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) in In a Lonely Place famously beat a reckless driver to a bloody pulp, among other violent transgressions (this, despite being innocent of the crimes he was accused of). Here, we have Johnny Logan, AKA Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), a former gunslinger who’s traded in the pistols for a guitar at the behest of Vienna (Joan Crawford), a former flame who’s opened up a saloon & casino just outside a small town on the Arizona frontier in a patch where the railroad is scheduled to be built. Hired to provide music for the customers, Johnny quickly finds himself embroiled in a dispute between Vienna and multiple town leaders, including Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) and McIvers (Ward Bond), who want Vienna to close down her joint in the name of eliminating the competition. When Vienna refuses to back down, a battle for pride, dignity, and, of course, money begins, with Johnny by her side and the loyalties of The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) torn between a loathing for this cocky stranger and his love for Vienna.
In a first-rate performance, Crawford imbues Vienna with an unyielding strength that’s unusual for the period; only her dark lipstick distinguishes her from any soot-covered, whiskey-drinkin’ Western cowboy. Emma isn’t any more “ladylike,” as she’s thoroughly determined to pin any and all transgressions on Vienna, her mortal enemy. While love certainly plays a part in their enmities (Emma’s loathing for Vienna stems from the Dancin’ Kid’s infatuation with her rival), it never supersedes their identity as powerful, independent female leaders. Ray is entirely aware of the unusual nature of his approach, a point made clear when one of the members of Emma’s crew comments that Vienna is more of a man than he is. By shoving conventional structure out the door, Ray demands that his voice be heard.
Despite the film’s title, Hayden isn’t really given a ton to do (though he’s great in the role). Johnny partakes in a few intense moments—such as when we first learn he can handle a gun as well as a musical instrument, and during a daring rescue attempt in Johnny Guitar‘s latter stages—but he mostly lingers in the background, putting in his two cents when asked and never backing down from adversity while rarely initiating conflict himself. This is the women’s show, as Ray makes clear with his compositions: Vienna is front and center in almost every shot, with her friends standing behind her. That friends and foes both perish by the end is of little consequence to Ray’s overarching message—Vienna’s independence and dignity survive, in life and death.