After helping a wounded gang member, a strong-willed female saloon owner is wrongly suspected of murder and bank robbery by a lynch mob.After helping a wounded gang member, a strong-willed female saloon owner is wrongly suspected of murder and bank robbery by a lynch mob.After helping a wounded gang member, a strong-willed female saloon owner is wrongly suspected of murder and bank robbery by a lynch mob.
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.
- Feb 16, 2006