GUEST REVIEW: JOHNNY GUITAR (1954)

Guest review by Kevyn Knox of The Cinematheque

Directed by Nicholas Ray

“There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforward there is cinema.  And the cinema is Nicholas Ray.” – Jean-Luc Godard

Johnny Guitar is one of those films one must not take too seriously.  Now don’t get me wrong, the film is indeed a great work of cinematic art (possibly director Nick Ray’s best work) and its classically gorgeous look and progressive visual style make it a wonder to behold, but its over-the-top giddiness and the way it verges on camp (especially in the dialogue and performances) make the film something altogether different.  Something almost dreamlike—almost as if you are not watching a movie so much as hallucinating what you might think a movie could or should be.

Johnny Guitar, the film that Truffaut once called “Hallucinatory Cinema,”  is almost magical in its approach to what film is and still should be.  This strange characteristic turns this redefined western into almost an experimental work of art.  Something that defines not what the western genre is, nor even what it could be, but what it might be if torn asunder and flipped onto its proverbial backside.  Something one could see Quentin Tarantino attempting today, but made instead back in the mid-fifties when life was staid and suburban and everyone was just crazy about Ike.
Still from Johnny Guitar (1954)
Derek Malcolm of The Guardian said of the film, “This baroque and deliriously stylised Western, along with Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious and Raoul Walsh’s Pursued, proves it is possible to lift the genre into the realms of Freudian analysis, political polemic and even Greek tragedy.”  Amen brother.

Other westerns of the time delve deeper than the typical genre-specific Hop-a-long Cassidy territory of the earlier mode—The Searchers is a Freudian masterpiece for sure and the films of Anthony Mann (and to a lesser degree Budd Boetticher) have stretched the ideas of right and wrong to whole other ballparks.  But Johnny Guitar puts them all to shame—not only in its sheer gorgeousness of set, costume and photography; its brilliantly subversive screenplay (“written” by Philip Yordan as a front for blacklisted writer Ben Maddow); and/or its richly textured (and verging on camp) performances—but also in its power to transcend even the very cinema Godard spoke of and become one with the gods, so to speak.

And on top of all that—Joan Freakin’ Crawford!  A comeback of sorts for Crawford, Johnny Guitar, no matter how masculine the western genre typically is, is wholeheartedly Joan’s picture to win or lose.  The film’s tagline reads: “Gun-Queen of the Arizona Frontier ! . . . and her kind of men !!!”  Auteur theory aside for a moment, it was Crawford who bought the rights to the novel by Roy Chanslor and put the whole kit and kaboodle in motion in the first place, and it was Crawford who was taking a chance on reinventing herself.

Derek Malcolm (again) said of Crawford, “What she does in the film transcends either camp or melodrama.  It’s like watching a legend at work throwing off her previous baggage and gaining a new acting skin.”  Perhaps this was the last of her great pictures (though some may beg to differ after watching her bloody duet of films with gal pal Bette Davis a few years later) but nonetheless, Malcolm’s words ring true.  We won’t even bother going into her on set feud with costar Mercedes McCambridge (wasn’t there always one of these?) or the diva-esque insistence on having all her close-ups filmed in studio where the lighting could be better staged.  After all, it’s Joan Freakin’ Crawford—what would one expect?

Featuring staging for pure artistry (in no way can this film be construed as reality-based!) and dialogue that rang just this side of ridiculous, Ray’s film may be a bizarre amalgam of cinematic tropes and traumas—all lumped into his psycho-western-cum-melodrama—but when one stops trying to analyze the film (and therefore stops their attempt at serious critique!?), one surely sees a brilliant film for brilliant film’s sake.

Sure, there may be flaws, but someone once said (it may have been Truffaut, not sure) that every movie has flaws and it is in these flaws that something special is born.  Okay, I may have made that up, who knows, but it is something to believe in.  Film lovers are sick people (Truffaut really did say that!) and that can be proven by the fact that we, the aforementioned sick film lovers, can love a film not in spite of its flaws and blemishes but because of them.  Sick.

But for now, let’s forget all the critical and analytical mumbo jumbo and end on a much simpler note.  To quote Johnny Guitar himself (see, it’s not all about Joan after all): “There’s only two things in this world that a real man needs.  A cup of coffee and a good smoke.”

Fin.

4 thoughts on “GUEST REVIEW: JOHNNY GUITAR (1954)”

  1. I find it horrifying that there isn’t a proper Region 1 release for this movie. The version I have linked from Amazon is a Region 0 disc from Korea. The word on the Net is that the Spanish Region 2 disc has the best picture quality.

  2. The lack of a good DVD release is so sad – this is a movie that everyone should be able to see, and see now.

    This was a cool review, but I think you emphasized Crawford’s contributions at the expense of McCambridge, who’s at her very best here, burning up the screen with her delirious evil. Really, all three leads are fantastic (and, for that matter, so are Carradine and Borgnine).

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