Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, and Scott Brady in Johnny Guitar (1954)


(director: Nicholas Ray; screenwriters: from a novel by Roy Chanslor/Philip Yordan; cinematographer: Harry Stradling; editor: Richard L. Van Yordan; cast: Joan Crawford (Vienna), Sterling Hayden (Johnny Guitar), Mercedes McCambridge (Emma Small), Scott Brady (Dancin’ Kid), Ward Bond (John McIvers), Ben Cooper (Turkey Ralston), Ernest Borgnine (Bart Lonergan), John Carradine (Old Tom), Royal Dano (Corey), Frank Ferguson (Marshal Williams), Paul Fix (Eddie), Rhys Williams (Mr. Andrews), Ian MacDonald (Pete), Sheb Wooley (Posseman), Will Wright (Ned), John Maxwell (Jake), Robert Osterloh (Sam), Trevor Bardette (Jenks, stagecoach driver), Clem Harvey (Posseman), Frank Marlowe (Frank), Denver Pyle (Posseman), Sumner Williams (Posseman); Runtime: 110; Republic; 1954)

“The film makes much to do about sexual role-reversals.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Nicholas Ray’s exotic psychological and neurotic Western, in which he covers his usual outsider theme but in a Western that doesn’t feel like any other. It feels as if Freud wrote the script and everyone’s sexual motivations were constantly being psychoanalyzed. It was almost as if the film was a parody of a Western humorously examining what a man and a woman are supposed to be like, while playing games with the Western conventions. It also could be thought of as a political allegory, a critical reaction to the witch hunt of McCarthyism taking place at the time, of the senator’s self-righteous attacks on those he didn’t like and for going after others for reasons of guilt by association. Francois Truffaut in his review of the film said it reminded him of “The Beauty and the Beast, with Sterling Hayden being the beauty.”

Joan Crawford bought the rights to the film and sold it to Republic. She wanted her friend Claire Trevor for the part of the butch antagonistic, gun-totin’ woman foe, but the studio chose someone she couldn’t stand for the part, Mercedes McCambridge. Nicholas Ray was so enamored with Mercedes’ manic performance, he called it “straight sulfuric acid.” Joan Crawford for most of the film dresses in black and appears masculine, but when she is about to lose her empire appears in a white dress while playing the piano for a posse dressed in dark funeral garb.

Joan Crawford is Vienna an owner of a small-town gambling saloon in Arizona, located on the outskirts of town. She is doing a booming business, but expects to do even better soon when the railroad comes to town, with the promise of lots of new customers from back East. She has hired a loyal staff to run the joint and has treated them fairly well, offering them a small share in the business. She has just hired her former lover of five years ago for protection, the Albuquerque gunslinger, Johnny Logan, who now takes the name Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden).

The film opens in stunningly beautiful Trucolor, as Johnny Guitar is crossing the mountainous terrain and the mesas, and the pastel colors of that scenery comes across as particularly striking. He soon witnesses the dynamite blast from the railroad people, leveling the ground. He then witnesses from afar a stage being robbed but he doesn’t stop to help as he rides straight to Vienna’s saloon, accompanied by a dust storm.

The saloon is empty, as Vienna greets her new guitar playing employee from atop the staircase. He is unarmed, but has a guitar slung over his shoulder. Her saloon keeper, Sam (Osterloh), says to him, “I never met a woman who was more man.” In the empty saloon she tells Eddie (Fix) to spin the wheel, she likes the sound it makes.

The quiet is broken by a group of townspeople hurriedly entering the saloon led by the sheriff (Ferguson), the town’s leading citizen, John McIvers (Bond), and the cattle baron spinster, Emma Small (Mercedes), who begins to contentiously ask Vienna about what she knows of the stage robbery and the killing of one of the passengers. The one killed happens to be her brother. They suspect that it is Vienna’s boyfriend who did it, ‘The Dancin’ Kid’ (Brady), and they keep asking her where he is.

‘The Dancin’ Kid’ and his three partners, the young kid, Turkey Ralston (Cooper), the mean-spirited bully, Bart Lonergan (Borgnine), and the consumptive, book-reading Corey (Dano), loudly enter the place and when asked where they were, they say that they were at their silver mine. When asked to identify if this gang did the shooting, the stage driver (Bardette) says they wore masks and he never saw their faces.

A sexual drama of mythic proportions gets played out as Emma has a crush, which she won’t admit, on ‘The Dancin’ Kid’ and would rather hang him than face that knowledge. She bristles with hatred for Vienna, detesting her more than anyone else in the world. Vienna is going out with ‘The Kid,’ but it is evident that she secretly longs for Johnny Guitar. ‘The Kid’ is crazy about Vienna, but is besides himself when she tells him– she likes him, but not that much. Meanwhile Guitar is pining after Vienna, after dumping her five years ago because he wasn’t ready to get married. And Vienna, has decided to act bitchy about the whole thing, saying she is not interested in men anymore, only money.

McIvers goes puritanical after witnessing this Freudian feminist display of repression in the bar and tells Vienna that she has 24 hours to close the place or else! That the town doesn’t need her saloon, they have one already in town. He also tells ‘The Kid’ to leave town.

When the “good” townspeople ride off, then the macho antics of ‘The Kid’s’ gang take over as ‘The Kid’ and Bart ride Johnny, who tries to keep his quick-temper in check. A fist fight results between Bart and Johnny, where Bart gets the hell beaten out of him outside, while ‘The Kid’ and Vienna chat about their relationship by the bar. The mannerisms of all concerned are weird, to say the least, especially for a Western film. No Western has ever had female leads with such twisted personalities as this one does and a psychopathic drifter as its reluctant hero.

In a minor role but one that adds another psychological layer to the film about identity, is John Carradine. He is Old Tom, someone who is unimportant, who remains unnoticed in the background as the saloon’s cook and remains loyal to Vienna because she treats him right. He, also, instinctively likes Johnny.

Johnny and Vienna finally get a chance to show their tender side, as Johnny doesn’t want to hear how Vienna was able to get this place and become a rich woman. He tells her, “It’s not real– nothing happened the last five years. Let’s get married.” They embrace- and she says, “What took you so long?”

Vienna goes with Johnny to close her account in the bank Emma owns, not wanting to do business there now that her brother is dead. While ‘The Kid’ and his gang decide to holdup the bank figuring that McIvers ordered them to leave town even though they didn’t rob the stagecoach, they might as well leave town for something they did. ‘The Kid’ doesn’t take Vienna’s money and refuses to be talked out of robbing the bank by her, and on the way out gives her a big departing kiss.

The gang’s escape plan soon goes awry as they choose to not escape through the desert but over the mountain passes, but the railroad men dynamite the passages leaving them trapped in town. They decide to go back to their hideout which has a waterfall as an entrance, but Turkey falls off his horse which runs away from him and he is forced to go to Vienna’s. She doesn’t want him there as the posse is coming back from the funeral, along with the angry Emma. When they get to her place, they discover the wounded Turkey. They get him to falsely say that Vienna was with them on the robbery, telling him that they will spare him from hanging if he drops a dime on her. Before Emma leaves the saloon, she vindicatively burns the place to the ground.

Turkey soon learns how good the word of the respected citizens of the community is when he has a rope around his neck and is hung. When it comes Vienna’s turn to be hung none of the men will do it, but Emma volunteers. But Johnny cuts the rope and saves her, as they go riding off on his horse. I think I saw that heroic bit on one of those Roy Rogers movies, so this must be a Western after all!

Vienna now has no choice but to go to The Kid’s lair, where she scrambles some eggs for Guitar as ‘The Kid’ goes into a jealous twit and is ready to fight. But he cools down and goes out to do guard duty. He slowly realizes that there is nothing he can do: she doesn’t love him.

The posse track Vienna to the hideout and the final showdown is a pistol duel between the two gun totin’ women. The result is Emma is dead and Johnny carries the wounded Vienna away with him, as the posse watches and Peggy Lee sings the title song telling us “There is no one like my Johnny!”

The film makes much to do about sexual role-reversals and of a hero who is only at peace when he has a pistol in his hands. It is a story of love and hate, of a woman who became a business success because she was successful as a prostitute and unlucky in love, and it is a love story that is surprisingly tender and dramatically inexplicable and overwrought with emotion. There was a lot in this Western to digest, especially in its use of sexual symbolism.