While filmmakers like Robert Altman (McCabe and Mrs. Miller) and Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) openly challenged the orthodox mythology of the West, Nicholas Ray's operatic Johnny Guitar might be the most subversive western in Hollywood history. When you watch this kaleidoscopic wonder, you can't help wondering 'how did they get away with it?', 'who conceived it' and 'did they realize what they were doing?'.  There's never been a western like Johnny Guitar and given the way Hollywood regurgitates safe bland material, there never will be again.


Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) arrives mysteriously at a gambling saloon in the Arizona desert run by the fiery Vienna (Joan Crawford) and her exclusively male staff. The saloon is positioned right next to a planned major railroad. The local landowners headed by Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) don't want the railroad nor Vienna and barge into her saloon to tell her to get out of town, particularly as they suspect Vienna is harbouring a local gang of outlaws headed by the Dancing Kid (Scott Brady) who just happen to arrive at the saloon at the same time. While a showdown is avoided, it's clear that Emma and her men will be back. It's also clear that Vienna and Johnny have a past and that the Dancing Kid is jealous.

Director Nicholas Ray always followed his own star and boldly turns all of the familiar conventions of westerns on their head. There is no landscape to this fllm, no Monument Valley towers, Rocky Mountains, Colorado river, rolling plains nor desert. The setting is claustrophobic- caves, waterfalls, cliffs, it's more operatic stage than real world, Wagner meets the west. Everything is hyperbolic. Vienna wears a virginal white dress playing the piano in one scene which is juxtaposed against Emma and her henchmen in all black. The performances of the two women are charged and the dialogue is delivered in hyperventilating rhythms. Crawford is shot repeatedly standing above everyone else like a goddess.

The film is feminist in sensibility before its time. The two female characters drive the film. While Brady and Hayden are as butch as it gets, they and all the other men are impotent in the overall plot. At the beginning of the film, one of Vienna's staff says “I never met a woman who is more man”.  When Johnny implies that Vienna got where she was by sleeping around, she responds with a speech about the injustice of women who sleep their way up the ladder being labelled tramps compared to men behaving as they like with impunity. Freud would have a field day with this film. Johnny “shoots like a man” whereas the teenage boy Turkey “shoots like a boy”, enough said. McCambridge's facial expression throughout the film is like an animal on heat and there's a more than arguable lesbian subtext in the way Crawford and McCambridge interact.

Johnny Guitar was shot during the height of the Hollywood blacklist, and like High Noon, the story of a lynch mob ganging up against one little saloon owner resonates in anti-McCarthy terms. Indeed, the film was financially unsuccessful and continued Crawford's career slump and it wasn't until the French cahier de cinema embraced it and unveiled its deeper agenda that it became the cult favourite it is today. Truffaut described it as the western Beauty and the Beast with Hayden as the beauty.


Vienna was a juicy part for Crawford and she plays it with panache. McCambridge flies around in her back dress like a mad raven and she was obviously determined not to be upstaged by Crawford, with whom she clashed repeatedly. Hayden was a strong action man, but he and Brady never get out of the starting blocks. The supporting cast is a who's who of the western including Ford favourites Ward Bond and John Carradine. Ernest Borgnine plays one of his many ugly villains and veterans Paul Fix and Royal Dano are also noticeable. Ben Cooper who plays Turkey is still alive and I note he sings Crawford's praises in a recent documentary.

Unlike High Noon, where the subtext was intricately camouflaged, Johnny Guitar's garish style blinded the witchhunters to its message. Loaded with metaphor and symbolism, Johnny Guitar is (as Roger Ebert recognizes) as modernist as Heart of Darkness or The Wasteland. It's not a masterpiece, but it's masterful illusion.


Mal Byrne


  • Director: Nicholas Ray
  • Year: 1954
  • Run Time: 110 mins
  • Country: USA
  • Rating: PG