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Johnny Guitar (Blu-ray Review)

27 Aug, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Scott Brady, Mercedes McCambridge.

Joan Crawford apparently didn’t like Johnny Guitar, and it has been said that director Nicholas Ray didn’t pay it much heed until, in retrospect, the Nouvelle Vague generation of French film critics began rhapsodizing to such a degree that they all but employed it as the very definition of cinema. What’s more, many of the overweight flannel-shirts who make up the standard coterie of vintage Western fans were all-out contemptuous — especially since, of all things, JG was a product of Republic Pictures (home of ‘B’-picture old-schoolers such as Gene, Roy and Rex Allen, though by this time, all had exited from a studio that didn’t have long to live).

But if you’re a fan of middle-aged Joan, a Nick Ray cultist, feminist of either sex, gay, a student of anti-McCarthy allegories — or love Victor Young, Peggy Lee and the kind of expressionistic color that drives Martin Scorsese crazy in the good way — you may understand why few movies ever have given me the degree of sustained pleasure served up by Republic’s “prestige picture” of 1954 (indeed, its only one, though I’ve always had a soft spot for the same year’s even more lunatic The Atomic Kid). A supremely bent psychological romance in which a great Victor Young score works overtime to compensate for ill-matched leads who give terrific individual performances, it casts Crawford as “Vienna” — owner of an out-of-town gambling saloon in New Mexico (with, by the way, unforgettably sparse set design). Her plan is to take advantage of land values that will explode when the railroad soon comes to the area (imminent). But the local land baron (Ward Bond) and Joan/Vienna’s hysterical femme rival (Mercedes McCambridge, putting her Oscar performance for All the King’s Men very much in career shade) want to put her out of business, if not kill her. Interestingly and effectively, the two female enemies are the only women in the movie.

Thanks to all this popularity in the community, Vienna hires long ago lover Johnny (Sterling Hayden), whose living philosophy must be something close to, “You’re cute when you’re butch.” Billed to the barroom regulars as a master of acoustic stylings, he is, in reality, the famed gunfighter formerly known as Johnny Logan — a handle that amused me and my buddies to no end when we were kids because that was the same name as the Milwaukee Braves’ All-Star shortstop.

Photographed as a dominant presence by the great Harry Stradling (later of My Fair Lady and Barbra Streisand’s first four features), Vienna is one of the most sympathetic characters Crawford ever played, a voice of logic and reason when the Bond-McCambridge cabal finds her guilty by association because she is friend to a band of miners-turned-outlaws led by the shady Dancing Kid. Republic regular Scott Brady has more fun than I ever saw him have with the Kid role, giving some surprisingly tangy readings to some excellent Philip Yordan insult dialogue that plays quite amusingly against Hayden’s trademark stoicism.

How many things do I love here? Well, right off, I know of very few movies — and far fewer Westerns — that manage to rivet the attention from the get-go despite opening with 30-35 minutes of sustained conversation taking place in (all but) a single room, sustaining interest by virtue of actors, angles, cutting, color, scoring and a serious wind machine. See also the Yordan-Ray digs at the banality of mob rule, with all of Bond’s cronies dressed as a pack in near-identical suits, which, in one close-up, even have uniform mud splats. Of course, the mere casting of Bond — at the time, probably Hollywood’s biggest political reactionary in real life — was a delicious bit of perversity that may or may not have gone over the actor’s head. I would kill to know because, as much as I loved Bond on screen, I doubt that he was much into irony. (There’s that legendary story about John Ford, at Bond’s funeral, saying to Andy Devine, “Now, you’re the biggest ass-$#%^ I know.”)

Bonus points go to showing Hayden kick the stuffing out of a Kid subordinate played by Ernest Borgnine, and then, for once, having the latter’s face terribly bruised for the rest of the picture (this in a movie that is couched as anything but realism). And yes, there’s that stirring choice of color. In a costuming array that didn’t just happen capriciously, we’re treated to Joan in dramatic black for the long opening scene, a white dress that eventually catches fire a little past the midpoint, and then that electric butter-yellow blouse with the red scarf into which she changes for the finale, staged at the outlaw digs. Speaking of which: When I was a kid, I thought Brady/Kid’s the coolest hideout I had ever seen on screen (you have to enter through a waterfall and the ride up a steep near-cliff). I still do – and, in fact, don’t think there’s anything even close in screen annals.

Johnny Guitar was shot in garish Trucolor, which at one point was as synonymous with Republic Pictures as Trigger and Forrest Tucker. Because it was subject to fading and didn’t look all that great even on a movie’s opening night, John Ford (after employing it for Republic’s This Is Korea) refused to use it for The Quiet Man. This excellent Blu-ray rendering is the first instance where I’ve ever thought the process to be something of a virtue, one in keeping with a twisted milieu. Looking the best I’ve ever seen it, it seems consistent with the movie’s mix of natural outdoor images atop blatant rear projection and matte shots — to say nothing of the equally surreal cast. Add to this a gunfight between two masculine women that concludes with a haunting Peggy Lee vocal. This was all too mind-melting for the ’50s (though I can remember my grandmother taking it straight), and there’s never been anything quite like it since. Not even Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns, which is pretty delirious itself.

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