Thursday, February 06, 2014

Tonight's Movie: Johnny Guitar (1954)

I was hoping to attend a screening of JOHNNY GUITAR (1954) tonight at the Egyptian Theatre, but between rain and a heavy workday I decided to take it easy and skip the drive to Hollywood -- especially as I've spent the last four Thursday evenings traveling to various events in the Greater L.A. area!

I'd never seen JOHNNY GUITAR before so I did the next best thing and watched the Olive Films DVD on our biggest TV set, for as close to a "cinematic" experience as possible.

I think my head is still spinning as I try to fathom what I just watched. An incredibly gorgeous film on a beautiful DVD, with a haunting musical score...but yes, that movie was as odd as I'd heard. It was mesmerizing, even as I kept thinking "What on earth?" The movie struck me as rather like a dream, where everything's heightened and a little off-kilter. It feels as though everyone involved knows they're doing something offbeat but they just collectively shrugged and decided to go for it!

Vienna (Joan Crawford) owns a saloon in the middle of nowhere, but it won't be the middle of nowhere for long, as the train is due to pass right by, which will make her land quite valuable.

An assortment of vivid characters make their way to Vienna's in a dust storm, starting with Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), who's been hired to entertain; Marshal Williams (Frank Ferguson), McIvers (Ward Bond), and Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), who blame Vienna for the death of Emma's brother; and the Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady), who might be an outlaw. The mere mention of the Dancin' Kid sends the repressed Emma into a tizzy. Before it's all over Vienna will be accused of helping the Kid pull off a bank robbery, a development accompanied by shooutouts, a fire, and a lynching.

Parts of the film were so overwrought it made me chuckle...and yet, the movie's got something. The images keep dancing in my head...of Vienna playing the saloon piano with the rock wall behind her, or the moment Johnny Guitar pulls a gun and reveals he's not quite what he's seemed, or the way the Kid and his men emerge from a tunnel under a waterfall which reveals a beautiful mountaintop cabin, or the black-garbed men of the town looking like so many crows all perched together. There are amazing yellows and reds, photographed in Trucolor by Harry Stradling, and most beautiful of all, the sparkling river. (Alas, how did those awful fake backgrounds behind Crawford and Hayden work their way into the final sequence?)

Just as was the case with FEMALE ON THE BEACH (1955), I'll never understand the concept of the '50s Joan Crawford as someone men go crazy for -- in this case two men! -- but there's no denying that Crawford is a compelling screen presence. It's a shame the same can't be said for her rival in the film; Emma is supposed to be obnoxiously annoying, but frankly I've always found McCambridge a bore and this film didn't change my mind. Crawford and McCambridge play roles that typically would be played by men, their animosity driving the film's action.

Sterling Hayden made the movie for me, his understated initial demeanor ultimately revealing a very dangerous man hiding underneath. The slow reveal of Johnny's past relationship with Vienna is fascinating, as they move through anger and falsity to genuine emotion. There's a scene near the end in the Dancin' Kid's cabin where Johnny fastens Vienna's belt which seems fraught with meaning...nothing happens but that moment was more sensual than any explicit scene ever could be.

One of the movie's pleasures is the great supporting cast; I loved the shots which capture Bond, Ferguson, and Paul Fix all on screen at the same time. Those men represent so much great movie history; added together, the three men's IMDb credits total over 900 titles!

The cast also includes Ben Cooper, Ernest Borgnine, Royal Dano, Rhys Williams, John Carradine, and Ian MacDonald.

JOHNNY GUITAR was directed by Nicholas Ray. It runs 110 minutes.

The evocative score was by the great Victor Young; Young cowrote the title song with Peggy Lee, who sings it at the end of the movie.

JOHHNY GUITAR is a unique film which gives the viewer much to think about while also presenting a visual feast. Definitely worth checking out.

October 2016 Update: Olive has released JOHNNY GUITAR with a different screen ratio as part of its new Olive Signature line. My review of the excellent Olive Signature Blu-ray presentation is here.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Terrific review,Laura, of one of my favorite westerns. It has the Nicholas Ray touch, doesn't it. As you say, wonderful colors - I love Vienna's saloon - that red rock wall is amazing,especially when she sits there in the white dress playing the piano.
Great locations in Sedona.

12:39 AM  
Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Enjoyed this review very much. It is indeed an oddball movie, but very compelling. It's funny how some movies have us mumbling to ourselves afterwards: "What did I just see?"

5:08 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks, Vienna! How fun that your handle matches Joan's in this film. We may pay a visit to Sedona in May when we bring our son home from college.

That's a great description, Jacqueline! Oddball yet compelling. I saw THE LEGO MOVIE this weekend so I've seen two films in a short time frame that were quite interesting but also very definite "Was that crazy or what?" movies!

Best wishes,

11:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a fascinating, beguiling movie, isn't it Laura? There's so much richness on show both in terms of the themes and the visuals. When I wrote about the film myself in the past I was struck most by the sense of "otherness" that surrounds the characters and the way they're cast.

I'll agree that neither Crawford nor McCambridge are what could be termed as attractive in the movie, but their handling of their respective roles is phenomenally good - especially the twisted repression of the latter.


1:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's always interesting to find out what someone thinks of Johnny Guitar. Most either love it or hate it.

We say this about movies all the time, but with this one, I literally find something new every time I see it.

I think an ideal evening would be this one and Rancho Notorious as a double feature.

9:38 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

It really was fascinating, Colin, and I liked the word "beguiling" to describe it. It really does sort of just reel you in and keep you mesmerized! I'll head over to check out your post on it!

Toby, I haven't seen RANCHO NOTORIOUS yet! I'm intrigued by your mention. :) I can definitely imagine there's always something new to notice in JOHNNY GUITAR.

Best wishes,

11:50 PM  

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