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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

JOHNNY GUITAR -- DVD Review by Porfle

One of the great adult westerns of the 50s, Nicholas Ray's classic JOHNNY GUITAR (1954, Olive Signature) is a real treat for lovers of the genre who are looking for something that not only touches on a lot of the familiar tropes but also twists them around in novel ways.

The main novelty, of course, is that two of the main characters are a couple of gun-totin' gals who can be just as rough and tough as the guys.  Joan Crawford, exuding pure movie-star magic, is at her brassy best as no-nonsense frontier broad Vienna. (That better be a Pepsi in yore hand, pardner!) 

Clad in traditionally male western garb and packing a pistol, her image in this film is iconic.  Vienna is the owner of a luxurious saloon/casino which she has built right where the train will soon be coming through, with lucrative plans for an entire town under way.  

On the opposite side is one of my all-time favorite actresses, Mercedes McCambridge (she played Luz in GIANT, rolled a cigarette with one hand in LIGHTNING STRIKES TWICE, and was the voice of you-know-who in THE EXORCIST), an exhilarating spitfire of pure hate as Vienna's sworn enemy, Emma Small, a rancher opposed to the coming of the railroad among other things.

Just as Mercedes' method acting style clashes with Joan's Old Hollywood performance, so do Vienna and Emma go at each other's throats over old scores that are rekindled when Emma's brother is murdered during a stagecoach holdup that's blamed on Vienna's friend, the Dancing Kid (Scott Brady) and his gang of ne'er-do-wells. 

The Kid and his men--Bart (Ernest Borgnine), Corey (Royal Dano), and the callow Turkey (Ben Cooper)--claim to have been working their secret silver mine during the robbery, but a mob led by Emma and equally hot-headed rancher McIvers (Ward Bond in one of his most robust roles) are out for their blood.  Vienna accuses Emma of being unreasoningly hostile toward the Kid due to his rejection of her affections, which only enrages her further.

Into this hair-trigger situation rides the mysterious Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden, DR. STRANGELOVE, THE GODFATHER), who claims he was hired to play music in Vienna's place but, as it turns out, has quite the history with her.  Johnny doesn't carry a gun but can handle himself pretty well all the same, as burly Bart discovers when he makes the mistake of picking a fight with him. 

This opening sequence in Vienna's saloon takes up nearly thirty minutes of screen time but is riveting every step of the way, from Johnny's arrival to his turbulent introduction to the Dancing Kid (jealousy rears its ugly head), to the tense scenes between Vienna and the hostile group that will eventually become a frenzied lynch mob later in the story. 

Nicholas Ray's (REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE) handling of all this drama within the single setting's confines is masterful.  Equally good although somewhat more conventional is the later action involving a bank robbery (Vienna is accused of being involved, of course), the attempts of the Dancing Kid and his boys to escape the bloodthirsty posse, and the aforementioned lynching.  

What we're really waiting for, and Ray delivers, is the final guns-a-blazin' showdown between Vienna and Emma--truly a memorable moment in western movie history.  The two get the film's best closeups, too--Crawford, impossibly iconic and effortlessly charismatic, and McCambridge, wild, frenzied, and almost sexually ecstatic after having set fire to Vienna's saloon.

The familiar Republic Pictures "Trucolor" process looks wonderful, and Victor Young (SHANE) contributes another of his exquisite musical scores.  Dialogue is sharp and often quite delicious, particularly when Vienna and Johnny are agonizing over old times or Emma is on a tear, which is always. 

The handsome set design in Vienna's place is a marvel unto itself, resembling something from the vivid imagination of Ken Adam during his days as production designer on the early James Bond films albeit with a rich western flavor. 

I like the way Vienna's softer side comes through in her private upstairs domain, and later when she dresses in feminine fashion for Johnny.  When the lynch mob blusters into her saloon after the bank robbery, she's seen in a delicate gown playing the piano, a picture of rough-hewn class in stark contrast to their potential barbarism.  

Sergio Leone, who would be inspired by this film during his masterpiece ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, seems to have derived some of the qualities of his female protagonist "Jill" from Vienna--both are women exerting a civilizing influence on the Old West amidst the coming of the railroad while standing to profit greatly from it. 

Johnny himself may have influenced Charles Bronson's character ("Johnny Guitar" could just as easily be "Johnny Harmonica") while some of Ray's visual style was certainly admired by Leone, whose own westerns were an homage to the American ones that he loved.

Much is made, of course, of the many Freudian aspects of the story, as well as the fact that Ray, reportedly bisexual himself, may have added a lesbian undercurrent to the relationship between Vienna and (the sexually-confused?) Emma.  How much of this one consciously acknowledges while watching is up to the individual viewer--I find it all rather intriguing while also pleased that Ray doesn't try to drive any of this home with a sledgehammer.

There's also the well-known supposition that the whole business of being falsely accused and urged to give false witness against others (Turkey is offered amnesty if he will incriminate Vienna) is an indictment of the whole House Un-American Activities Committee era in Hollywood.  Again, we're allowed to give this as much credence as we choose to.

One thing that can't be denied, however, is the excellence of this cast comprised of both major stars and some of Hollywood's finest character actors.  In addition to Crawford, McCambridge, Brady, and Hayden, plus the aforementioned Borgnine, Dano, Cooper, and venerable John Ford/John Wayne regular Ward Bond, the film also benefits from the presence of such stalwart players as John Carradine, Paul Fix, Rhys Williams, Sheb Wooley, Frank Ferguson, and Denver Pyle. 

The DVD (also available in Blu-ray) from Olive Films' "Olive Signature" label is in 1.66:1 widescreen with mono sound, mastered from a new 4k restoration. English subtitles are available.  Extras include an introduction by Martin Scorcese, a commentary track by critic Geoff Andrew, a theatrical trailer, and several featurettes including "Johnny Guitar: A Western Like No Other", "Johnny Guitar: A Feminist Western?", "Tell Us She Was One of You: The Hollywood Blacklist and Johnny Guitar", "Free Republic: The Story of Herbert J. Yates and Republic Pictures", "My Friend, the American Friend" (memories of Nicholas Ray with Tom Farrell and Chris Sievemich), and the text essay "Johnny Guitar: The First Existential Western" by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.  Rosenbaum's essay is also reprinted in a handsome illustrated booklet that comes with the DVD.

As an ardent fan of the western genre, I've somehow gone my whole life without experiencing JOHNNY GUITAR until now.  Which is fine with me--one needs these little belated cinematic thrills that only a newly-seen classic film can give.  Which this one does, in spades. 

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