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|Index||99 reviews in total|
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Great cast and stunning direction makes this an offbeat classic. Funny
interpretation of gender roles in America -- Crawford as the emasculated
nihilistic prostitute/businesswoman, and Hayden (in PERFECT casting) as a
slightly pretty-boy gunslinger, a role in which he is as passive to
as a typical film heroine to her hero. All bit parts are memorable,
particularly the venomous McCambridge (one of her best
it makes my skin crawl every time I see her face light up as they burn the
casino) and John Carradine's memorably pathetic death scene.
A lot of people have said a lot of things about this movie. I was glad to see from glancing through the postings on IMDB that there is also some healthy discussion of the movie on here -- how much it means, how little it means. I don't think it was designed to save the world from its madness, nor do I think it's a lesbian love story (although there is some strange element in McCambridge's obsessive hatred of Crawford), but I do think there's something going on beneath the surface of this film that's hard to explain. Somehow, it ended up being much much better than it should have been. One thing is, I think Nick Ray and Phil Yordan decided the story was so ridiculous that they would just concentrate on the emotional elements, also bringing out the pure fantasy (going behind the waterfall to find a hidden fortress, the heroine running from the fire in her white satin dress, etc.) that is the best element of all great film. But it's really hard to pin down any one element that makes it great, so I'll have to stand pat and just say it's a combination of elements that are operating on conscious and subconscious levels to bring about a fantastic movie experience -- to those who are able to surrender to it.
One other element worthy of comment -- the wonderful opening sequence where Hayden rides through a hillside covered in explosions. I really think that the quality of a good movie, and especially a western, can be seen most of the time in how well the director handles an opening sequence. He/she should capitalize on the viewer's total lack of knowledge about the film's situation to create moments of suspense or drama that couldn't possibly occur once the story is set in motion. He should also use this suspense to create tension that will carry the movie forward. Nicholas Ray has done an excellent job of this here; we see Hayden riding through the explosions and wonder what's going on, and then we see (through his eyes) the bank holdup, which he is doing nothing to stop. We don't know if he's a part of the robbery, we can't really see who's doing the robbing, etc. etc. -- it just brings up a lot of questions that keep the audience wanting to see more.
An excellent production, one of Republic's best.
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.
When Johnny Guitar opened in Brazil probably in 1955, it was released through a big chain of movie theaters and I remember it being quite successful at the box office, no doubt also helped by the song that was a huge hit. Except for a few critics, most people took it just as a good western with no second thoughts. But there was more to it, "as François Truffaut wrote in his review when it was first shown in France "Never trust in appearances. Beauty and profundity are not always found in the "obvious" traditional places; a Trucolor Western from humble Republic can throb with the passion of "l'amour fou" or whisper with an evening delicacy."" (from "The Western" by Phil Hardy, page232). Seeing it recently I was impressed with the fast pace of the film, the great dialogs, the unusual settings, the incredibly strong presence of Joan Crawford, the hysterical character played by Mercedes McCambridge. Nicholas Ray was a creative director and his great achievement in this film was to take the story seriously, and not try to make a satire.
I was 15 the very first time I watched this wonderful movie, and from that moment it became a kind of cult classic, a cinema icon, for me. I had to wait over ten years to be able to enjoy it again, and by this time it had reached the category of legend on my personal film paradise. The great score by Victor Young, which I never could forget, is probably the most romantic and sentimental music ever composed for the screen, with the Johnny Guitar theme, with the voice of Peggy Lee, bringing us the fascination of the legend they called Johnny Guitar. Also the fantastic colourful images, with those reddish tones of fire and passion, and the backgrounds, the landmarks, the characters and the sutile and perfect dialogues, make this film a total masterpiece or modern cinema. A western without savages, cavalry, rodeos, and the usual John Ford stuff. A different western, ahead of its time, and very misunderstood by the public then, but, fortunately, reborn from the limbo and forgiveness, rediscovered by new generations, and still alive, fresh as in its first day, and always inmortal. Joan Crawford was never so great, and the exchange of poisoned words with McCambridge at the saloon "You haven't got the nerve" , and "If I don't kill you first" on reply to "I'll kill you" by Emma, makes me to smile, as both characters show they wear the trousers rather than the men do. In short, there never was a film like Johnny Guitar, and there never will. Now, on its 50th aniversary, it is time to enjoy it once more, and to wish that we could have been at Vienna's, being part of that group of characters with no equal in cinema iconography.
This deservedly legendary western has to be seen to be believed. Directed by Nicholas Ray in blazing color, courtesy of Harry Stradling, Jr., it's western featuring the rivalry between two women, Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge, as they quarrel over two men, Sterling Hayden and Scott Brady, and shake things up in the Old West, Hollywood style, 1954. The film is for all practical purposes experimental. Ray is indulging himself in color, composition and space, nudging the viewer toward laughter at every twist and turn of its convoluted plot. As a purely visual exercise the film is a rousing success. Although Victor Young's music is nice, and the late Peggy Lee does a good job with the title tune, this one's better with the sound off. It is a movie to see, to experience, and very hard to discuss. Lord knows, I've tried. If you can make sense out of it, I'll buy you dinner. My best guess is that Ray was taking all the aspects of film that are traditionally ancillary and incidental, and putting them ahead of everything else. What I like most about Johnny Guitar is the way Joan Crawford's saloon is designed, the undergound cave, the waterfall, the cabin on top of the hill, the moments of intimacy and emotion as they occur in these places, and how the viewer is encouraged to suspend his disbelief of what the story is about and give into his emotions, as the characters give into theirs', and let the devil take the hindmost. Ray succeeded marvelously here, as there's nothing else quite like this one; and the movies in general as far as I'm concerned are still lagging behind it, by several decades.
"Johnny Guitar" is a perverse and fascinating Western where sexual
drive plays an important part in the story... It is known that Emma's
madness/hysteria is a result of sexual repression... She detests
Vienna, who has her choice of men, when the only man she can stir up
herself is ugly Bart... And what is especially enraging for Emma is
that while she is desperate for the Kid's love, Vienna, who now has
Johnny back, turns the Kid away and still he doesn't stop being loyal
to her... Even before Johnny returned to her life, Vienna had reached
control over her sexual desires; but Emma hasn't such will power...
Johnny Guitar rides into a small town in the wilds of Arizona... He has been hired to work as guitarist by an aggressive lady of fortune, owner of a saloon-casino... Five years earlier they had been lovers, but he walked out on her, too restless to settle down...
There is a stage robbery, and a banker is killed... Emma Small (Mercedes McCambirdge), the dead man's sister, comes to Vienna's accompanied by the town marshal (Frank Farguson), and the wealthy rancher John McIvers (War Bond), and a bunch of vigilantes...
Emma and McIvers are determined to keep the area an open range for cattle... Emma also despises Vienna because the man she loves, the Dancin'Kid (Scott Brady), is attracted to her... She would rather see the Dancin'Kid dead than with Vienna, and tries to convince her companions that Vienna, the Kid, and the Kid's partners stingy Bart (Ernest Borgnine), sickly Corey (Royal Dano), and young Turkey (Ben Cooper)are responsible for her brother's death and should be hanged... Neither the marshal nor her ally McIvers will go along with her without real evidence, but McIvers orders Vienna and the Kid's gang to clear out the town...
That night, Vienna and Johnny admit they still love each lover... They agree to start again, but neither is certain the other can be relied upon... Vienna doesn't like Johnny's violent nature and Johnny is jealous that Vienna has had many lovers...
The following day, the Kid and his three companions decide to rob Emma's bank - figuring that as long as they are being forced to flee the area it might as well be for a genuine crime and not a stage robbery which they had no part in... The bank robbery takes place just as Vienna was withdrawing her money...
Joan Crawford wears black and packs six-guns... She makes all the decisions, initiates the action, and takes the majority of heroic standsPrivileges traditionally denied women in Westerns... Vienna dreams of a railroad and a new town... She wants to remain neutral, and sit and wait for the railroad to come and make her rich... She is at her best when she refuses to allow Emma and the vigilantes to arrest her for the murder of Emma's brother... She sees herself still in love with Johnny... She searches his face in every man she mets... Now she finds it hard keeping the peace between the two men who love her...
As Johnny Guitar, Sterling Hayden is a loner with a past... His character struggles to control hostile impulses... In fact, he begins with true explosion that occurs when he rides across the screen... Soon he finds himself compelled to strap on his gun again to protect his love...
Dressed in a black funeral dress, Mercedes McCambirdge is a highly frustrated Emma who constantly reminds the cattle people that Vienna is a foreigner, having lived in the region only five years... Appealing to their bigotry, she warns them that if the railroad comes through as Vienna plans, dirt farmers will push the cattlemen out of the territory...
As the Dancin'Kid, Scott Brady is a left-handed-draw, leader of a wild bunch, whose only desire is 'to leave the town so broke.' He tosses a coin into the air, promising Johnny Guitar he'll kill him if it turns out "head."
Nicholas Ray will be always remembered for "The Lusty Men," "Run for Cover," "The True Story of Jesse James," and "Johnny Guitar," his first film in color... With great skill, he makes a fantastic Western with two gun-carrying ladies in a showdown to-the-death...
Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) walks into a saloon run by Vienna (Joan
Crawford), who is his past love whom he hasn't seen for five years. He's
looking for a job as guitar player. Many things has changed since they saw
each other for the last time, Vienna turned from a plain saloon singer to
its owner, and Johnny Guitar, also known as John Logan, one of the fastest
to draw the gun in the West, passed through many tribulations too, but one
thing immediately becomes clear as they meet again (`I've waited for you,
Johnny') that the major suffering they had to pass through was the solitude,
the pain of separation from each other.
But five years is a long time and `How many man have you forgotten? As many as you remember.' There's a man she hasn't forgotten yet called Dancing Kid and there's also a woman who haven't forgiven Vienna for not forgetting him, his most dangerous rival in life and in love Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), ready to stop before nothing to have her revenge on Vienna and get Dancing Kid's heart back from her possession.
But `Spin the wheel, Eddie!' and here is Emma together with town's Marshal accusing Dancing Kid and his partners of recently committed robbery. The accusation that soon makes them go against the law and flee together with Johnny and Vienna. `Keep the wheel spinning, Eddie!' There they are on the run towards the end culminating in a duel between the two women and in so many loves and so many deaths. `Stop spinning the wheel, Eddie!'
Fabulous acting by fabulous actors, wonderful script with unforgettably intelligent and witty dialogs, magnificent direction and intensity of passions surpassing the impact of deaths of `cowboys dying with the grace of ballet dancers' (François Truffaut in his review on the film). What more can I say? Simply one of the greatest Westerns ever made that deserves to be seen and seen again. 10/10
Vienna (Joan Crawford) is a woman with an unknown past, who built a
saloon in an area outside town, waiting for the railroad, which would
pass nearby her bar. She has a great enemy, the evil Emma Small
(Mercedes McCambridge), who wants to expel Vienna from that place. The
reason for the dispute is the love for Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady), a
handsome man. The simple guitar player Johnny 'Guitar' Logan (Sterling
Hayden) arrives in the bar, invited by Vienna, to work with her. The
locals are not aware that Johnny was the former lover of Vienna and a
famous gunman. When Dancin' Kid and his partners rob the local bank,
Emma finds a motive to accuse and chase Vienna.
This movie is an excellent and very feminist western. The story is different from most of other movies of this genre and based on the rivalry of the two lead actresses. I do not recall any other western movie having such powerful roles for women. The DVD released by the Brazilian distributor Versátil is wonderful, being totally restored and re-mastered, highlighting the marvelous colors of the costumes of Joan Crawford. Mercedes McCambridge has an outstanding performance in the role of a very mean and powerful woman. My vote is nine.
Title (Brazil): 'Johnny Guitar'
I have seen Sterling Hayden in a lot of film that I have been picking up lately, and I must say that I think that he is one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood history. Anyway, there is nothing like mob mentality, and this film proves it. Good acting, good script, Ernest Borgnine (Nicholas Ray gets bonus points for casting him), and some pretty good direction make this a worthwile western for any fan of the genre. Only a couple a places with some shoddy editing make this film kinda weak in my eyes.
Just outside of town is a small saloon where the owner, Vienna, plans to
develop a new town once the railroad comes through. However her
associations with criminals (namely the Dancin' Kid and his gang) bring
disapproving Emma Small and the authorities to the saloon. Aided by the
arrival of a man from her past, Vienna stands against them, but only
succeeds in putting off the inevitable confrontation in a situation made
worse by love and deception.
I came to this film simply because it was the username of another person on the imdb boards and I was intrigued as to what it was about. The film starts as a western but it simply doesn't conform to that genre, instead it is a weirdly matriarchal piece where the traditional roles are almost roundly reversed and the whole film has an otherworldly feel to it. The plot summary doesn't really do justice to a story that essentially comes down to being a battle between Emma and Vienna as well as throwing up all manner of issues regarding the relationships between the characters. The western clichés become secondary to these relationships and the director seems to prefer these to any lynching or shoot out.
The full colour of the film gives it a gaudy, otherworldly appeal that is very enjoyable. Fires range in terrible, hellish reds, while shadows divide scenes of emotional complexity. Heck, it even goes down to the basic level of having the innocent Vienna dressed in perfect white before doing a blood red shirt to become a fugitive. Not all of this works of course, and several times I wished it would settle down into a film that I could recognise rather than being so different from what I am used to, but it was more interesting as a result (aside from being less accessible).
The cast are roundly good but the fireworks belong to the two lead actresses. Despite being the title character, Hayden is rather underplayed but I think that was the point - he is not the typical Western man's man. Crawford is very good as Vienna but she is out-hammed and out-vamped by McCambridge who is excellent. In any other film her performance would be woefully OTT but against the background of a saloon burning with a hellish fire, her facial expression work very well and her whole performance fits well too.
Overall this film is no classic western - mainly because it is not a western but rather a complex story in western clothes. The gaudy colours and cleverly framed shots only serve to enhance a plot that is difficult to fully appreciate but is engaging none the less.
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