I have been relishing the opportunity to watch Johnny Guitar because I have been convinced it would be horrendous. You might then understand my utter amazement at how good the movie is. Outside of Joan Crawford who is the only downfall of the flick –and a big one at that– Johnny Guitar is a great story that takes an untraditional approach to the western genre.
Westerns generally depict the feuds between men, but Johnny Guitar‘s main focus is on two fighting women. Crawford is saloon owner Vienna who has become generally associated with the gang of the Dancin’ Kid. Mercedes McCambridge as Emma, on the other hand, aligns herself with a rival posse of ranch hands that includes the sheriff and a U.S. Marshall. At the opening, Emma’s brother is killed in a stagecoach robbery and that group of ranchers blame the Dancin’ Kid’s quartet. They go to Vienna’s saloon to search them out but do not find the supposed culprits there, at least not at first. When the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) does show up, he denies involvement with the robbery and shooting. Emma has a particular hatred for this man, but Vienna maintains it is because she wants him but in a star-crossed lover sort of way cannot have him. The Kid, might want Emma as well, but he’s also pushing to get in Vienna’s bed. In light of the feud and shooting, the sheriff declares a law that would prevent Vienna from offering booze or gambling at her establishment and calls for the Kid’s gang to get out of town –all within 24 hours.
Throughout this, a new man in town, Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) has arrived at Vienna’s request for a job playing music at the saloon. He gets on the bad side of the Dancin’ Kid gang and beats up Bart, played by Ernest Borgnine, and shoots a gun out of young Turkey’s hand (Ben Cooper). We eventually learn that this Johnny Guitar –or Johnny Logan– was Vienna’s past love, but the woman’s seedy bedroom forays in the past five years stand in the way of a reunion.
Because the Kid’s gang is being run out of town, the group decides to actually commit a crime on its way out. Just as Vienna is withdrawing her money from the bank now owned by Emma, the men barge in and rob it of all its gold. The authorities naturally associate Vienna with the crime and Emma is out for blood. Before Vienna and Johnny can skip town, however, they are faced with a wounded Turkey, whom they must hide in the saloon as Emma and the ranchers barge in. All is well until Turkey’s hiding place is discovered and the law and Emma force him to say Vienna helped in the robbery or else be hanged. He does so but the posse now rushes off to hang them both. A chase and shootout compose the remainder of the plot.
McCambridge was truly stunning in her brutal portrayal of a frontier woman with masculine strengths. Often the camera takes a close-up on her homely face as she seethes with rage in either yelling at or campaigning against her nemesis in Vienna. McCambridge and Crawford hated each other off screen making their onscreen feud all the stronger, but Crawford’s approach is more cool and aloof and does not stack up against her rival. Besides having left her beauty behind her by this point in her career, Crawford is absolutely out of place in a western. Her clothing, face and hair are absolutely spotless throughout the movie as though the woman never ventures outside into the dirty, dry world of the western U.S. The gun belt she wears looks more like a fashion accessory than a weapon holster, and she holds a gun more like Mildred Pierce than a gunslinger. For one portion of the flick, Vienna dons a purely white dress that somehow never dirties despite being hauled on a horse to her hanging, hiding against the earth and strolling through a mine. Even after getting wet while wading through a river and passing through a waterfall, moments later she is dry, her hair pristine and the man’s clothes she’s borrowed perfectly clean and well-fitting. It takes no stretch of the imagination that Crawford likely required these perfections for her role. She certainly required all close ups be filmed in a studio rather than on location so that the lighting could be controlled to her advantage.
Besides Crawford sorely standing out as the wrong person for the role, I greatly enjoyed the story of Johnny Guitar even if it has less to do with the titular character than the women who consume the story. It is a great twist on the classic western and draws many great performances.