Joan Crawford as Vienna in Johnny Guitar (1954)

I’m Going to Kill You: ‘Johnny Guitar’ Gets the Class Treatment

One tends to watch this film open-mouthed in wonder at the forceful dialogue, the colorful imagery, and the sheer emotional punch of its women.

While Criterion set the standard for releasing DVDs and Blu-rays with bonus material, a little company called Olive Films has been releasing bare-bones discs of collectible titles, sometimes obscure and occasionally famous. Now they’re dipping a toe into upgrading some of those famous titles into a new bonus-packed line called Olive Signature, and they’re kicking off with Johnny Guitar.

This 1954 classic was analyzed by PopMatters here. To refresh your memory, it’s an unusual, heady western famous for pitting two mighty women against each other in a no-holds-barred seething hatefest that drives the plot in the same way that opposing men usually drive the plot in the other 98 percent of westerns.

Vienna (Joan Crawford) is a saloon owner and (by implication) former prostitute who stands to make pots of dough when the railroad comes through. Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), as diminutive as her name, hates her for complex reasons of class, territoriality and sexual jealousy, but really as a pure force of plot. A highpoint is when Emma calmly states “I’m going to kill you,” to which Vienna just as calmly replies, “I know, if I don’t kill you first.” It’s no idle promise on the film’s part. Their stridently articulated, gaudily designed, long-simmering tensions can only bode violence, which happens in spades.

Standing around are the semi-useless men who are primarily sex objects or pawns in the women’s power games: the “gun crazy” Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), literally named for the object identified with him, and the equally objectified Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady). Also in the picture are Ward Bond, John Carradine, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Cooper, Royal Dano and Frank Ferguson.

One tends to watch this film open-mouthed in wonder at the forceful dialogue, the colorful imagery, and the sheer emotional punch of its women, which is why the movie has derived a “camp” reputation endearing it to Crawford and McCambridge fans everywhere, as well as serious consideration as a feminist western touching at least tangentially on gender roles and subversions of male power, not to mention genre conventions. In the introduction on this Blu-ray, Martin Scorcese calls it “one of the cinema’s great operatic works, meaning that it is pitched from beginning to end in a tone that is convulsive and passionate.” And how.

Thanks to the bonus material, viewers are now given various contexts in which to consider the picture. The most useful extra is Geoff Andrew’s excellent, friendly and informative commentary. He calls attention to stylistic choices and discusses the movie’s place in the output of director Nicholas Ray, who often made films about “outsiders”, sexual and otherwise. In a separate extra, two men who knew Ray in his final years offer their reminiscences.

B. Ruby Rich, Kent Jones, Miriam Bale and Joe McElhaney are corralled for two pieces, one discussing “A Western Like No Other” (though others are mentioned in the trends of psychological and feminist westerns) and one speculating on the question of whether and how it’s a feminist film. One decisive way is that Crawford, as uncredited producer, initiated the project and altered the script to suit her. A textual essay from Jonathan Rosenbaum claims it as the “first existential western”.

Placing the film in the history of Hollywood’s Communist-era blacklisting, one piece finds parallels between the film’s story and the Congressional House Un-American Activities Committee. Key here is the chilling moment when Emma Small persuades one outlaw to save himself by claiming Vienna as part of a robbery plot, wheedling him to “tell us she was one of you”. As masterfully as any modern demogogue and fully aware of her power, Emma appeals to the townies’ xenophobia about “dirt famers and squatters” who are “going to push you out”.

Writer Walter Bernstein, who didn’t work on this film, discusses his blacklisting and his membership in the Communist Party, while historian Larry Ceplair speculates on the extent to which writer Philip Yordan was a “beard” for Ben Maddow, a question that apparently can’t be settled.

Marc Wanamaker gives a succinct history of Republic Pictures and why founder Herbert J. Yates expanded his B company into more ambitious projects like this one, shot in Trucolor, a cheaper process than Technicolor. Mastered from a new 4K restoration, the Trucolor looks fabulous here.

Like most Blu-ray extras, these are probably unnecessary for most viewers, although the commentary is pretty essential. Still, it’s nice to have them, and it’s nice for this movie to be treated with the respect it merits.

RATING 8 / 10