Johnny Guitar (1954)

Director: Nicholas Ray

I’ve seen this called “the screen’s great kinky western”, which I suppose goes to show how loose a meaning the word “kinky” has for some people… anyway, I haven’t seen this in a lot of years either, but this time I do know many, i.e. 20, cos it was back in 1995 when I saw it as part of my uni studies, in a class on film genres; this was shown as an example of the western. I didn’t get the appeal of it then and I don’t get it much more now either. This review by Ivan Shreve goes into the McCarthy-era political undercurrents in some detail (speculating that star Sterling Hayden, who had been a HUAC informer, was probably cast as a “commie” character for ironic reasons), which are no doubt there if you want to see them, but there’s a rather more overt class war at work in the story, which is, basically, about a bunch of NIMBYs living in terror of the railroad coming through their area and bringing (shudder) other people to their town. Saloon keeper Vienna (Joan Crawford) is just the advance guard of this wave of foreign muck from the East… and her association with a band of outlaws is enough for some of the locals to demand she be hanged with them. This is the dispute into which Hayden’s title character wanders, and, well, yeah, I still don’t feel it. Rivalry and climactic shootout between two women who are more manly than some of the men in the film, sublimated (homo?-)sexual frustration, yeah, whatever. It’s kind of interesting that Crawford and her opposite number Mercedes McCambridge hated each other so much that it kind of spills into the film (and out of it; apparently Crawford did her best to sabotage McCambridge’s career in later years); unfortunately, the apparently equal loathing Hayden had for Crawford kind of kills the chemistry the two are supposed to have, which is a bit more fatal to the film. I don’t get it. Maybe I find the melodrama a bit much. Maybe I just find McCambridge too much (I think she hams it up something awful). Whatever, I know earlier American critics hated it (the French loved it, of course) but generally the critical pendulum has swung the other way since then, and clearly those people who think it’s one of the great films now are seeing something in it that is frankly invisible to me; I can’t call it actually bad as such, it’s too well made for that, but something about it just leaves me completely cold. And 110 minutes of it is far too much.

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