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ReFramed No. 23: Nicholas Ray's 'Johnny Guitar' (1954)

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Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012
by Jordan Cronk and Calum Marsh
For this installment of twice monthly discourse, our experts weigh in on one of the most unusual westerns of all time, and one of film's greatest auteurs.
cover art

Johnny Guitar

Director: Nicholas Ray
Cast: Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, Scott Brady

(Republic Pictures; US theatrical: 27 May 1954 (General release); 1954)

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.
  
One wonders how a film this audacious made it through the studio system in the mid-50s at all, but based on how fiercely and vocally it was rejected by critics and audiences in its day, it’s not so surprising that nothing like it was ever made again (in fact it wasn’t really until 1992, with Unforgiven, that the concept of a revisionist western really had any traction culturally). Why do you think it took so long for the genius of this film to be recognized by just about anybody? Are people uncomfortable being confronted by a film with we might call a feminist agenda? Is the Western too quintessentially “American” a genre for people to embrace its subversion?

Jordan Cronk: I think it’s a combination of all those things, to be honest. Subversive filmmaking tends to either elide uninterested viewers completely or simply rub them the wrong way, and as a result Johnny Guitar can at times feel as equally ignored as it does rejected. Which is curious, because this is grand 1950s entertainment; and while I’d hate for people to think Nicholas Ray was solely using his platform to push particular agendas, what ultimately elevates this beyond simply “grand entertainment” is not only its master craftsmanship but also it’s very deliberate indictment of genre, sexism, government, and the Hollywood system.


Perhaps most of all, its narrative skewerings can represent a very pointed allegory for the Hollywood blacklist, still very much in effect in the mid-50s. So in a sense, as we’ve had perspective afforded to us by time, it’s not hard to see why a small band of critics would slowly embrace the film. But by that same token, wide appreciation still seems unlikely, what with the film’s brave gender reversals, alternately sharp and meditative narrative strokes, and an air of the surreal that ultimately subsumes the typical love triangle trappings that would normally work to endear the film to a larger audience.


But what’s unfortunate is that I don’t feel like any of this is pushed on the audience. It’s simply there for curious onlooker to probe and excavate if he or she so chooses. I would think that most of this will go completely unacknowledged by audiences of today, but like you briefly mentioned, it’s camp reputation may be holding it back to a degree. And it’s that frankly baffling reputation that ultimately speaks so negatively to our ingrained genre and gender prejudices. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the film is called Johnny Guitar, and yet the narrative is squarely set upon Joan Crawford’s Vienna and her character’s struggle with Mercedes McCambridge’s deliciously evil Emma. And perhaps that’s the first sign to audiences that what they’re witnessing isn’t your typical shoot ‘em up Western, but something far more considered and relevant.


Marsh: I’m glad you mentioned the title, actually, because I think it’s a key to understanding what exactly is so subversive about the film: naming the film after the a character who is ultimately not the lead is both a classic misdirect and, in a deeper sense, a tacit acknowledgment of Hollywood’s entrenched sexual prejudices. It’s clear within five minutes that Crawford is the star of the show here, both subject and hero-figure, and it’s clear within ten that Johnny Guitar himself—played with just the right amount of deference by Sterling Hayden—is only an observer, divorced from the action just enough to examine and comment on it.





But with a title like that, it’s almost as if the movie wants us to realize that we “need” a male lead, that we expect it as par for the course, and I think it wants us to be critical of our own expectations. It’s subtle, but I think it’s rather effective, because the friction that emerges between the film and our expectations of it is part of what makes it so audacious and significant. I like that it calls us out on our bullshit, even if only on the sly.


You mentioned the Hollywood blacklist, too, which I think we should talk about a bit more. I think it’s probably difficult for us to imagine how oppressive the atmosphere of McCarthyism would have been to live through, and because of the nature of the oppression we don’t have many explicit cinematic documents of its effects—I suppose the most notable example from the period would be Chaplin’s A King In New York, which sprang from his own experience with government investigations and his resultant exile from the US.


But we’re mostly left with allegories like Johnny Guitar, which even if indirect is still a pretty striking portrait of the sorts of ideological witch hunts that affected Hollywood during the Cold War. And so like we’ve been saying, even though this is a very conventionally satisfying movie produced within the classical studio system, its range of political meanings shouldn’t be undervalued.


Cronk: Yeah, and that’s just one more aspect that would probably go unnoticed to today’s audiences; which is fine, since it in no way hampers the visceral joys of the writing, acting, or filmmaking, all in elite form throughout. It’s so common for film’s to be overtly political today, that it’s easy to overlook just how subversive filmmakers had to be during this era to get even a modicum of their own personalities or beliefs into a specific work. But to get back to the gender play, it’s interesting to see just how far Ray takes it, going even deeper than the bait-and-switch of the title to retrofit both Crawford and McCambridge with short, masculine haircuts.


They’re completely stripped of sexuality, and it’s a more level playing field, narratively, as a result, but it’s obvious that audiences didn’t—and perhaps don’t—quite know how to process these characters and their actions. I mean, the film ends not with a big, testosterone-fueled stampede between the male characters, but instead and quick duel between the two female leads. That the romance is, in a sense, fulfilled by the end, is just another convention that Ray seems to be constructing only to knock back down, and there are obviously much greater implications outside the narrative for these characters after the film concludes. And lastly, the fact that one of the story’s motivating factors hinges on a young male character with blatantly flamboyant characteristics is just indicative of the level of role reversal and sexual inversions that are on display here.





Marsh: Absolutely. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that the female characters are stripped of sexuality, though—their stereotypically feminine qualities are reduced in differing but noticeable respects, sure, but sexuality is a major component of their relationship and, as far as I’m concerned, the cause of the animosity between them. It’s implied that Crawford’s character has used her body to attain power in the past, employing her sexuality in a way that grants her an agency and autonomy rare in female characters of the period, and her confidence as a sexual agent inspires jealousy in McCambridge, who is framed as frustrated and conflicted about her own sexuality.


It’s easy to see a shared lover as focal point in their conflict—that kind of jilted jealousy would have been common even in the 1954—but what’s more important is how fundamentally different their approaches to their own bodies and sexuality are from one another, and the kinds of power relations that surround them as a result. Both hold positions of authority within their circles: Crawford is an entrepreneur with a fiercely independent spirit, inspiring the respect of those around her; McCambridge is slighter of body and character, but she compensates with will and intensity, overextending herself to command a posse with fear.


That McCambridge rides around in funeral-wear that causes her to resemble a nun only underlines the point here: she’s self-repressed, a woman scared of her own body, and because she rejects pleasure for herself she strives to strip others of it, too. I think the whole conflict makes Johnny Guitar‘s feminism slightly more complex than what the usual ‘strong woman overcomes male oppressors’ narrative provides.


Cronk: Oh no, I think you’re correct. What I meant by that was that these women are physically stripped of sexuality from a modern perspective. Meaning, these aren’t your typical bombshells in the mid-50s sense—-not that the narrative would necessarily warrant such a depiction, but it nonetheless seems deliberate. Within the narrative they are obviously sought after, desired women, with the whole Scott Brady, McCambridge, Crawford, and Hayden storyline hinging on sexuality. For audiences, however, they aren’t given the traditional leading lady, one whom we’re supposed to desire.





That being said, there’s an encounter between Hayden and Crawford in the back room of Vienna’s Saloon that’s one of the more romantic scenes in any Western I’ve seen. The way Ray plays with the audience’s perspective and expectations is key, though, and I think the way they’re portrayed physically—the black “funeral-wear” that you mention, among other little details—is important to understanding one of the main thematic strains of the film.


One other thing I find fascinating about the film that we’ve haven’t talked about yet is how it’s structured, which is very unusual for what most would expect to be an action picture. After a brief visual prologue, the film begins with a nearly 40-minute, single-set dialogue scene which eventually introduces all the main characters, but only after plenty of entertaining digressions. It manages to move at a furious clip without ever seeming too rushed, pausing briefly for small character details and asides. Ray favors medium and two-shots in this sequence and throughout the film as opposed to close-ups.


I’m not even sure there’s a single close-up in the entire film. So while the movie is clearly about Vienna, it’s not ever framed from her perspective. Ray doesn’t tell the audience who to root for; in fact, Vienna initially feels like the antagonist. The way this opening sequence is choreographed and visually realized is rather extraordinary. It may amount to a brisk succession of information, but it’s one that can and should be appreciated on multiple levels. I feel like Ray would take his visual approach to even greater, more symbolic heights with Bigger Than Life, but this subtler tact is equally worthy of mention and praise.
 
Marsh: That opening sequence gives me chills. And beyond its political or ideological import, it just hits all of the right genre buttons, gratifying viewers even in a narrow or superficial way. The way in which Johnny is sort of “re-introduced” during the sequence—when a cowboy’s shot glass begins to roll off the edge of a bar counter, the camera follows the glass toward the floor before stopping on Johnny’s hand, catching the glass mid-fall and placing it back on the counter—serves both the important narrative function of positioning him as a catalyst for mediation and the more immediate function of endearing him to us a character. The sequence is audacious and effective, but it also exudes cool, making Johnny Guitar more than just the thinking man’s Western, worthy of basking in as much as studying. That’s an impressive achievement.



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