Thursday, June 18, 2009
Johnny Guitar (1954)
If there were ever an American classic sorely in need of a home video revival, it would be The Magnificent Ambersons (Criterion, are you there? It's me - Zach). However, continuing down that priority list, somewhere not too far from the top resides Nicholas Ray's upheaval of the classic Western, Johnny Guitar.
Ray was a master of subverting genre and playing it cool under the Hayes Production Code, or later on, what was left of the Code in the mid-to-late 50s (see Rebel Without A Cause). The censors were always a little slow on the uptake when it came to Freudian psycho-sexual allusions, and Ray's work is loaded with repressed, dark tension. As a result, years later his films don't feel quaint and scrubbed clean in the way that even some of the greatest films from the same period are.
For any viewer with even the most casual knowledge of the classic Hollywood Western picture, Johnny Guitar stands out from the get go. As Sterling Hayden's titular character rides into a valley, a mountain range explodes. He then moves on to watch a stagecoach robbery and shooting, which the posited hero glimpses with little reaction. We are introduced into a world of chaos where the rules of the game no longer apply.
Our symbolically impotent hero carries a guitar, not a gun, and turns out to be not much of a hero at all. Good guys and bad guys are completely relative in Johnny Guitar - morally, we don't have much room to side with the law or the outlaws, which sort of disrupts the continuity for those who argue the film as an allegory for the McCarthy-era witch hunts. It's definitely there to some degree, but Ray isn't building up anyone to be 100 percent innocent of anything.
Joan Crawford's Vienna calls Johnny to her casino/pub joint in a frontier town under the auspices of needing entertainment for the place. Really, she's looking for protection from a long lost lover (don't worry, it's really not much of a spoiler). Vienna is caught in the throws of a Shakespearean stand off with Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) , John McIvers (Ward Bond) and what seems like the rest of the town. Partially, the feud is financially related, but much of Emma's deep-rooted hatred for Vienna comes from her inability to deal with her love for the Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady), a local outlaw with his eyes on Vienna.
The HUAC undertones come in as Emma tries to pin her brother's murder on Vienna (via her association with the Kid and his gang). If it sounds like I'm leaving out Johnny Guitar, it's because the title character is largely absent from his own film. As he confesses toward the beginning of the film, "I'm a stranger here myself." Johnny is largely cut from the action in deference to Vienna, his old flame. Traditional male heroism is continually undercut by a stronger female presence - it's something the men in the film never really come to terms with, mostly because the women won't allow them to.
Thematically, Johnny Guitar cooks up many of the ideas Ray would visit again in Rebel Without A Cause. Even in 1954, Ray sensed a paradigm shift in American values. He was a bit ahead of his time with Johnny Guitar, and as a result, the film's reception was pretty mixed in America. It's no surprise Variety didn't know whether to make heads or tails of the film. It's jarring. Everything that "should" happen in a Western generally doesn't, or at least happens in a very different way. Ray inverts the rules.
Some of Ray's most ardent contemporary support came from the young French critic Francois Truffaut, and it's easy to see why Truffaut and other future New Wavers dug so hard on Ray and Johnny Guitar (Truffaut called it the "Beauty and the Beast of Westerns, a Western dream"). What the New Wave would do for the gangster film (Breathless, Shoot The Piano Player), Johnny Guitar at least partially does for the Western. The genre mold is there, barely, but within that structure, the language is completely different - far more poetic, far less literal.
There's plenty of lyricism in John Ford's masterpieces, but none of Ford's films is as truly bizarre as Johnny Guitar. I realize that's not necessarily a flat out endorsement, and I'm certainly not going to make any bullshit claim that Johnny Guitar is a masterpiece in league The Searchers or Stagecoach. But Ray's film is a wrongfully overlooked and influential chapter in the Western pantheon. In the very least, I think that warrants a proper DVD release.