How the west was . . . whoa!
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.