Vanity production-turned-feminist horse opera “Johnny Guitar” brazenly undermines Western conventions

Nicholas Ray’s garishly complex take on the quintessential American genre from 1954 screens on 35mm at UW Cinematheque on April 15.
Image: The titular Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) exudes a James Dean-esque cool as he sips a glass of whiskey and converses laconically with Vienna (Joan Crawford), the proprietor of a Western saloon, through an opening in the wall.

Nicholas Ray’s garishly complex take on the quintessential American genre from 1954 screens on 35mm at UW Cinematheque on April 15.

Upon the release of Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar in 1954, critics did not know what to make of the offbeat, subversive Western. At once a scathing indictment of rampant McCarthyism, a masterful evocation of mob psychology, a bold experiment in genre revisionism, and a deliriously stylized high-camp melodrama, Johnny Guitar remains one of the strangest Hollywood films ever made. And on Friday, April 15, at 7 p.m., you can saddle up and catch a free screening of it on glorious 35mm at UW Cinematheque (4070 Vilas Hall).

Based on the 1953 novel by Roy Chanslor, Ray’s avant-garde proto-feminist horse opera tells the story of Vienna (Joan Crawford), an ambitious and strong-minded entrepreneur, who owns a saloon and casino on the outskirts of a sleepy frontier town in the 1800s. Johnny Guitar opens with the titular musician (Sterling Hayden) witnessing a stagecoach holdup from afar and proceeding on horseback to Vienna’s establishment. Shortly after his arrival, a group of vigilante ranchers, led by Vienna’s archenemy Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), turns up at the saloon with the body of Emma’s brother, who was killed during the robbery. Emma wrongly accuses Vienna of consorting with the gang who committed the crime. Although she has no proof, Emma blames Vienna’s occasional lover The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) and his cohorts for her brother’s death.

The townsfolk are already hostile to Vienna because her business stands to flourish after the impending construction of a nearby railroad. Emma, who happens to be one of the richest and most powerful landowners in town, demands that Vienna hang alongside The Dancin’ Kid and his gang. John McIvers (Ward Bond), the town’s mayor, compromises and gives them all 24 hours to leave. However, Vienna refuses to be driven away and Johnny pledges to assist her. Ostensibly hired to provide musical entertainment for the saloon, he is not what he seems.

Produced by Republic Pictures, considered the most prestigious of the minor studios at the time, Johnny Guitar was part of a package that included Roy Chanslor, who wrote the screenplay for Joan Crawford. As the owner of the novel’s film rights, Crawford was the de facto producer, and Ray was brought along when another planned project with Crawford fell through. In spite of the picture’s modest budget, the iconoclastic director was granted a significant amount of creative freedom. He hired Philip Yordan for a complete rewrite of the script, thus substantially altering Chanslor’s story in the process. Both Ray and Yordan acknowledged their intention to make Johnny Guitar a thinly veiled allegory for anti-Communist hysteria and the McCarthyist witch hunts in Hollywood.

Paralleling the fierce rivalry between their characters, Crawford and McCambridge were bitter foes behind the scenes as well. A former superstar whose popularity was in decline and whose professional jealousy of younger actresses was widely known, Crawford ignited the feud when the cast and crew applauded McCambridge after a particularly difficult scene. Later that night, Crawford raided McCambridge’s dressing room in an intoxicated rage and scattered her clothing and costumes along the highway. The very next day, Crawford demanded major revisions to the screenplay and the studio acquiesced. She threatened to quit if Yordan did not rewrite her part so that it would be larger than Hayden’s. Therefore, Vienna and Emma became the focus of the film, instead of Johnny Guitar and The Kid. Crawford even demanded a climactic shoot-out with Emma, and Yordan obliged. Hayden later famously remarked that “there’s not enough money in Hollywood to make me do another picture with Joan Crawford. And I like money.” Ray was rather unhappy during filming, but he still managed to finish nearly on schedule and budget.

Filmed on location in the otherworldly landscape of Sedona, Arizona, this baroque Western plays out like a vivid fever dream against the majestic red rock scenery. The film’s hallucinatory quality derives largely from shooting in the Trucolor format, which was both less expensive and more garish than Technicolor. Johnny Guitar‘s superficially simple plot remains secondary to its visual excesses and rich thematic core, which can be mined for a broad range of possible interpretations. Ray deftly intertwines intense psychosexual conflicts, complex ideas of femininity, and elements of film noir with trenchant political criticism, Western tropes, amplified caricatures of rugged masculinity, and an eye-popping expressionist aesthetic.

With its reversal of traditional gender roles, anti-authoritarian subtext, unusual set design, highly saturated color palette, and flamboyantly operatic performances, Johnny Guitar is a truly sui generis cinematic spectacle. Ray’s multilayered Western defies viewer expectations at every turn as it brazenly undermines the conventions of the quintessential American genre. While the film received mostly negative reviews from critics at home, Johnny Guitar was greatly admired in Europe. French New Wave icon François Truffaut proclaimed it “the Beauty And The Beast of Westerns” and said anyone who did not like it should never be permitted inside a cinema again.

Jean-Luc Godard also enthusiastically applauded Johnny Guitar and made explicit references to it in Pierrot le Fou (1965), La Chinoise (1967), and Weekend (1967). More recently, Godard featured footage from it in his experimental film essay The Image Book (2018). Since its original release, Ray’s film has garnered a cult following while influencing many notable directors, such as Martin Scorsese and Spanish provocateur Pedro Almodóvar, who integrated it into the plot of his black comedy Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown (1988). In 2008, Johnny Guitar was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Ray’s film has certainly come a long way from its dismal beginning as a critically derided oddball vanity production. In retrospect, Johnny Guitar feels far ahead of its time as its modern sensibilities and audacious visual style continue to inspire nuanced readings and resonate in the fluctuating cultural landscape of today.

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