Calum Marsh: Well, Jordan, it took us nearly a year, but we’re finally getting around to talking about perhaps the greatest of all neglected films, Nicholas Ray’s intensely divisive Johnny Guitar, from the halcyon days of 1954. Best remembered by the general public as the director of the iconic (and, in many ways, generation-defining) James Dean vehicle Rebel Without A Cause, Nicholas Ray is considered by those in the know as one of the most significant American filmmakers of all time, and yet his place in the canon is far from uncontested. We could be talking about any number of Ray films in place of this one—in fact, we almost went with Bigger Than Life, one of the great 50s melodramas—but I think Johnny Guitar, while it has its ardent defenders, is the most in need of reclaiming. It also happens to be one of my very favorite films, so I’m glad this is the one we settled on.
On the surface, Johnny Guitar is a Trucolor Western about a woman, played by Joan Crawford, who defends her saloon against mob-minded townspeople threatened by her severe manner and hard-lined business savvy. But its power comes from a place much deeper. The film is many things to many people—a revisionist western, a feminist polemic, a vibrant fairy tale, a subversive cold war parable, maybe even a queer cult classic—but it is above all a brazen, masterfully crafted work of cinema, and an enduring testament to the genius of Nicholas Ray, who was then at the height of his powers.