Johnny Guitar (1954)

Nicholas Ray | 1hr 50min

It is a rare sight to see a woman take the lead in a classical Western, and perhaps entirely unique to Johnny Guitar to see her set against another woman as the equally compelling villain. Don’t be misled by the title – the string-strumming outsider and his distaste for guns is only secondary to this bitter conflict between saloonkeeper Vienna and cattle baron Emma, simmering with a vile tension that is ready to boil over into violence at any moment.

The reason for such loathing on Emma’s behalf though is masked behind layers of excuses. There is Vienna’s support of the railroad that will soon run through her land, bringing sheepman to town. There is her unpopular decision to permit a group of rambunctious confederates to frequent her saloon. There is the false suspicion that she is behind the stagecoach robbery that recently killed Emma’s brother. Emma cares little for any of these quarrels, but they certainly at least prove to be useful in riling up the local cattlemen. Instead, it is her unrequited love for the Dancing Kid, Vienna’s old flame, which underlies her hateful rage.

It is Ray’s blocking of actors across layers of so many fantastic compositions that marks Johnny Guitar as his greatest cinematic achievement.

Similarly, the job that Hayden Sterling’s titular guitarist has been summoned to town for is also one layered with separate intentions. On the surface, Vienna has hired Johnny to play music for her saloon. Prodding a little deeper, he reveals himself to be a quick draw with a gun that she realises will be handy when trouble inevitably arises with the locals. On a base, psychological level though, her reasoning is simple – there is still some unresolved feelings lingering between the two from a past relationship. Nicholas Ray’s development of such multifaceted characters gives way to profoundly gripping drama in Johnny Guitar, delivering pulsating dialogue as rhythmic and loaded with subtext as anything one would find in a film noir.

“How many men have you forgotten?”

“As many women as you’ve remembered.”

It isn’t that Ray’s narrative moves slowly, but the time he takes to flesh out these character interactions in both his screenplay and staging certainly takes up larger portions of the film than most other Westerns of this ilk. Johnny arrives at the saloon in the first few minutes of the film, and it isn’t until almost forty minutes that we leave this location for another, but this magnificent, rustic set proves to be all Ray needs to set up his drama. One wall takes the appearance of a rocky cliff face, as if the saloon has been built into the side of a mountain, and with a balcony setting a stage for interactions across uneven levels, romances and rivalries are blocked with stunning visual flair. From low angles, Vienna stands tall upon the balcony like a queen in her domain, while high angles from this vantage point shrink Emma below, whose lack of physical power is offset by the large mass of ranchers standing right behind her.

High and low angles in mid-shots and wides, setting up these two rivals as polar opposites.

Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge are opposites in these roles, yet both deliver an equally remarkable pair of performances as enemies. McCambridge’s eyes are as small and mean as Crawford’s are large and expressive, and where the former predominantly dresses in drab, black dresses to put on a show of mourning, the latter is instantly recognisable for her array of bright, colourful costumes. Ray’s striking Technicolor serves these outfits well, setting Vienna apart as a woman fully embracing the full range of sartorial expression, as opposed to more traditional gunslingers like Johnny whose muted greys and browns blend into his earthy surroundings.

A remarkable composition illustrating the separation between the old lovers. Kitchen utensils hanging in the foreground, Johnny a little further back, Vienna isolated in the window frame wearing her gorgeous purple dress. As the conversation goes on, she emerges around the corner and romantic tension grows.
A bright red shirt – Vienna is out for vengeance, and Ray throws shadows across these scene as they plan their next move.
Several scenes are spent watching Vienna change outfits, but the blocking never falters.

As Johnny Guitar progresses, Vienna’s regalia grows even more vibrant with the intensifying conflict. The navy blue she starts off with is perhaps the subtlest we will see her dress in the entire film, and yet it still projects a mannered demeanour while she is most in control. When her mind later turns to vengeance, she changes into a burning red shirt, and then as she goes to confront her adversary one last time, her iconic canary yellow top finally makes an appearance, setting herself up as a vibrant source of hope – though not without keeping the angry touch of scarlet in her scarf.

A pale white figure accepting her fate, calmly playing the piano as Emma and the lynch mob arrive.

Sheila O’Brien’s costume design makes for a particularly striking composition when Emma and her lynch mob arrive at the saloon to confront Vienna a second time, only to find her peacefully playing piano in a flowing, white gown against the rocky brown wall. There is a calm acceptance here which, while confident, also makes her terribly vulnerable. Ray is sure to keep emphasising the massive oil-lamp chandelier that Vienna lit at the start of this scene here, especially capturing it from low angles, hanging over Emma’s head in a daunting piece of foreshadowing. Sure enough, she sends it crashing down to the floor only minutes later, burning down the saloon in a devastating set piece. In her mad smile and dour black outfit, one might call to mind the image of the Wicked Witch of the West, and with the orchestra playing up and down a delirious scale reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz’s tornado sequence the comparison is even plainer.

In every shot this oil lamp chandelier appears, Ray uses it to craft an excellent composition and set up its eventual relevance to the narrative.
Foreshadowing in this tremendous low angle and blocking.
Emma’s gun shot, dropping the oil lamps to the floor and setting fire to the saloon.
Ray knows what he has with this set piece, frequently cutting back to the burning facade.

The climactic showdown that ends Johnny Guitar does not try to top this in scale, but it does pay off on its character drama to an even greater extent, subverting our expectations that Johnny will be the one to save the day by letting Vienna land the killing blow on her foe. It is not his physical strength or skill with a gun which sways the course of events, but rather his moral fortitude, winning her over to his pacifist, musical lifestyle. Though the two lovers happily unite in these closing minutes, there is still something tragic about the way this male-dominated environment drives a wedge between two headstrong women, setting them up in bitter competition against each other as if there were only room for one. The most obvious feminist reading of Johnny Guitar is right there on the surface for anyone to grasp, but it is just as much in the sympathy that is offered to the mean-spirited Emma that the film reveals its deepest compassions, projecting a feminine sensitivity upon the Western genre through its marvellously complex characters and vibrant visual expressions.

The geography of Ray’s blocking. Vienna in the top left, Emma in the top right, Johnny in the bottom left, the Dancing Kid in the bottom right. Everything is set up visually in this wide shot for the final showdown.
A high angle sending Johnny and Vienna on their way, walking through a crowd of black-clad men.

Johnny Guitar is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s