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Vienna has built a saloon outside of town, and she hopes to build her own town once the railroad is put through, but the townsfolk want her gone. When four men hold up a stagecoach and kill a man the town officials, led by Emma Small, come to the saloon to grab four of Vienna's friends, the Dancin' Kid and his men. Vienna stands strong against them, and is aided by the presence of an old acquaintance of hers, Johnny Guitar, who is not what he seems. Written by
Ed Sutton <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Dancin' Kid: "Can you play?" Johnny Guitar: "Can you Dance?"
Surely this allegorical western influenced Clint Eastwood when he directed his "Pale Rider" and "High Plains Drifter," though I've never read where he has mentioned it. There are certainly similarities, especially with "High Plains Drifter." The brilliant director Nicholas Ray who threw so much of himself and his search for artistic expression on film into his works at times carries the allegory too far. Good allegory, such as "Moby Dick" and "Huckleberry Finn," must never become too obvious. It then descends into mere cleverness and creative arrogance. The posse from Hell dressed in black led by a perverted Joan of Arc doesn't leave much to the viewer's imagination. Except for a few such parts, most of the movie purports itself well and tells an effective story that can be interpreted on several different levels.
Mercedes McCambridge playing the demonic sexually repressed Emma Small (again the name makes it too easy for the viewer) stands tall amongst a cast of giants. That her voice would be used for the devil's own in "The Exorcist" is understandable for it crackles with fire and brimstone. Jealousy and rejection guide in her determination, nay obsession, to destroy both her sexual rival Vienna and her unrequited love the Dancin' Kid. Sterling Hayden plays the lead character Johnny Logan aka Guitar to perfection. Hayden was not only under-appreciated by the Hollywood moguls but even by himself. In interviews he always trashed his acting talents in much the same way Robert Mitchum tended to do his own. He maintained he was just doing a job that he didn't like very much. In reality Hayden was one of the best performers of his generation as was also true of Mitchum. Joan Crawford who was often miscast finds her niche in "Johnny Guitar." As her roulette spinner says to the camera,"She's more of a man than a woman." She is in control at all times even when there's a rope around her neck. She tells Johnny Guitar when to play his instrument and The Dancin' Kid when to dance. She even holds the posse from Hell at bay until Emma Small steps in. Emma is also a woman in control but only of external forces. Inside, her emotions, fears, and frustrations dominate.
Ernest Borgnine was still playing bullies, which he did so well, at this point in his career. Royal Dano the consumptive gang member always true to The Dancin' Kid gives his usual fine performance. Veteran actor John Carradine appears in somewhat of a different type role than usual as the loyal caretaker for Vienna. One part hearkens back to his best screen portrayal as Preacher Casy in "The Grapes of Wrath" when he tells Vienna that he'll hide young Turkey out in the cottonwoods so the posse can't find him. Nicolas Ray aided young aspiring actors with ability by showcasing their talents in his films. He introduced Dennis Hopper who has an uncredited bit part in "Johnny Guitar." Later Hopper would appear in Ray's "Rebel Without a Cause" with James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo. Look for two other faces that were mainstays of the cinema Sheb Wooley ("High Noon"--he also wrote and recorded "The Purple People Eater")and Denver Pyle ("Bonnie and Clyde," "The Dukes of Hazzard"). There's also the inimitable Ward Bond who could always be counted on to give a good performance.
Any show that starts out with a mountain being blown to pieces, a sand storm of Herculean proportions, and a stage coach holdup can be counted on to deliver the goods. The story about a railroad coming through to change the community takes second place to all the other storms and whirlwinds involving jealousy, greed, and murder. Emma and the posse from Hell are not just on a private vendetta. They are also trying to stop progress that threatens their very way of life. Railroads bring new people, new ideas, and new ways of making a living. Those who benefit from change like it. Those who are hurt by change fight against it with all their might. These forces mix with personal ones to make "Johnny Guitar" one of the best westerns ever. It's not to be missed.
The music for "Johnny Guitar" is a definite plus. Peggy Lee sings the title song, which she helped compose with Victor Young, at the end of the movie as no one else could. She had a sultry blues voice with great feeling and emotion. Oft times she is dismissed as a mere pop singer from the 40's and 50's. Peggy Lee was much more. She was one of the great voices for her era. I couldn't find information about who actually played guitar for Sterling Hayden. The picking is flawless. The closest I've come is the name Howard Roberts, who was the jazz guitarist that backed Peggy Lee on her later hit "Fever." I've read that he could play anything on any type guitar. The dance song picked by Johnny Guitar that inspired The Dancin' Kid to dance with Emma was "Ol' Joe Clark," a folk ditty, usually played on the fiddle, that was popular during the time period thus adding authenticity to the show.
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