How the west was . . . whoa!

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS - TARA BRADY

JOHNNY GUI­TAR Di­rected by Nicholas Ray. Star­ring Joan Craw­ford, Ster­ling Hay­den, Mercedes McCam­bridge, Scott Brady. Club, IFI, Dublin, 110 min

Vi­enna (Joan Craw­ford) has built a windswept Ari­zona sa­loon, not un­like the lo­ca­tion found in Tarantino’s The Hate­ful Eight. The bar is miles from the near­est set­tle­ment, but the ar­rival of the rail­road, will soon im­prove her lot. For the mo­ment, the only peo­ple who fre­quent the sa­loon are a bunch of out­laws, led by the Danc­ing Kid (Scott Brady), Vi­enna’s for­mer lover.

The lo­cal towns­peo­ple loathe Vi­enna be­cause of her out­law chums and the mod­erni­sa­tion she seems to rep­re­sent. The hos­til­i­ties are fanned by lo­cal har­ri­dan Emma (Mercedes McCam­bridge), who, as Vi­enna notes, is in love with the Danc­ing Kid.

En­ter gun­slinger Johnny Gui­tar (Ster­ling Hay­den), an­other of Vi­enna’s for­mer paramours, who ar­rives just as Vi­enna is given 24 hours to get out of town.

Jean-Luc Go­dard once wrote that “cin­ema is Nicholas Ray”, and no film ex­em­pli­fies the di­rec­tor’s ap­peal among the Cahiers de Cin­ema set quite like Johnny Gui­tar. Amer­i­can au­di­ences scratched their heads when this odd, sub­ver­sive west­ern pre­miered in 1954. Huh? The out­laws wear gaudy colours and the law­men wear black? The steely, sex­less Joan Craw­ford is a se­duc­tress par ex­cel­lence?

Time mag­a­zine called it “one of those cu­ri­ous an­i­mals, like the tiglon, the hip­po­lope, and the pec­ca­dillo . . . a cross­breed of the west­ern with psy­cho­an­a­lytic case his­tory”. Johnny Gui­tar’s strange Freudian and fem­i­nist di­men­sions, its punk­ish cri­tique of McCarthy­ism and the Hol­ly­wood black­list, and it’s lurid, op­er­atic tone would, con­versely, ap­peal to Euro­pean in­tel­lec­tu­als.

Dur­ing pro­duc­tion, both Craw­ford (who was hav­ing an af­fair with Ray at the time) and McCam­bridge were strug­gling with al­co­holism and petty jeal­ousy: McCam­bridge called Craw­ford “a mean, tipsy, pow­er­ful, rot­ten-egg lady”. Craw­ford called her co-star a child and threw her clothes in the street.

The fa­mous stand-off be­tween the war­ring women, a scene beloved by queer the­o­rists, ar­ranges them on a stair­case so that McCam­bridges’s head is shot par­tially from be­hind and comes up to the cross-dress­ing Craw­ford’s crotch.

Ar­guably, this is Craw­ford’s best role: “How many men have you for­got­ten?” Vi­enna is asked by the com­par­a­tively hap­less tit­u­lar hero. “As many women as you’ve re­mem­bered.” “Tell me some­thing nice”. “Sure. I still love you like you love me,” Craw­ford dead­pans through grit­ted teeth.

When the mob de­scends on Vi­enna with their “an­gry faces and evil minds”, she greets them play­ing pi­ano in a ball gown, and you re­ally won­der how the rab­ble got up the nerve.

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