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>
Peggy Lee wrote the lyrics to the theme song and sings it over the closing credits. See more »
When Lou from the posse says that he panned every inch of the stream, his lips don't match the sound so it is clearly dubbed. See more »
[Looking down at the deserted gambling area of her saloon]
Spin the wheel, Eddie.
What for? There's no customers.
I like to hear it spin.
[Eddie drops his paper and gives the roulette wheel a good spin]
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I would love to know what prompted a studio executive in the early 1950s to green-light "Johnny Guitar". Not that it's a worthless movie, but it's just so incredibly strange. Who thought that audiences wanted to see a Western where gun-slinging outlaws go by none- too-frightening nicknames like Johnny Guitar, Turkey, and the Dancin' Kid? Where the primary plot interest isn't with the male characters, but with two antagonistic women played by Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge? (And whose bright idea was it to bring Peggy Lee in to do the theme song?) Were the story's parallels to McCarthyism enough to get this film made? Was Nicholas Ray a respected enough director that the studio approved this project of his? I don't know, but I certainly would like to.
Of course, nowadays "Johnny Guitar" enjoys a reputation as a camp classic that makes subversive statements about things like feminism and homosexuality. Traditional gender roles get reversed: Johnny (Sterling Hayden) is a relatively passive hero, while his love interest, saloon-owner Vienna (Crawford) is described as being almost more man than woman. And there are many campy, laughable moments: the sight of Johnny holding a teacup, Vienna's poufy dress catching on fire, and most of McCambridge's intense performance as the vindictive Emma Small.
In some sense, though, the movie doesn't go as far as it could. We hear about Vienna's supposed masculinity more than see it: Crawford's voice and mannerisms are much too refined to suggest any kind of manliness. Maybe this is part of "Johnny Guitar"'s camp appeal, but otherwise I'd simply call it a bad performance. In another example of telling, not showing, the characters' convoluted psychology gets spelled out within the first fifteen minutes (e.g. Emma loves the Dancin' Kid, but is so afraid of her own sexuality that she thinks she wants him dead). But wouldn't "Johnny Guitar" be even stronger, and more subversive, if Vienna were truly masculine? Or if the characters' twisted motivations were allowed to unfold naturally, rather than told to us from the start?
Watching "Johnny Guitar," you get the feeling that the filmmakers were trying to make a big thematic statement of a kind not usually found in Westerns. But the exact nature of that statement is never clear (that's probably why this film is so tantalizing to modern scholars who want to decode its secrets). The result is a very bizarre, rather campy, completely unforgettable movie that hints at something more substantial, but never reveals what it is. Maybe if I knew the reason that this movie was initially made, I'd have a chance of figuring it out. But somehow I doubt even that would help much.
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