Howdy partners! Saddle up and come on down to the Mercury for the opening of our 2016 Adelaide Cinematheque season, Western style! Classic as well as, ahem, transgressive westerns, prizes for the audience member judged best dressed cowboy or cowgal every night, and you can wet your whistle with a beer and a terrific Tex-Mex BBQ outside from 6pm. 

There is something primal about the mythology of the American West, c1850-1890, celebrated, and even interrogated, on film. Our selection of four path-breaking westerns, all made in the fifties, the great decade for the genre, plus one almost forgotten refugee now residing in Australia all merit closer attention. Ranch Nights is dedicated to that unknown aficionado of the legendary Ranch Nights in Sydney in the 1960s, who was given to barking like a dog whenever the Western action was interrupted by a romantic interlude.  Git down!

 

Thursday Feb 4, 7pm: FORTY GUNS

Monday Feb 8, 7pm: THE SEARCHERS

Thursday Feb 11, 7pm: MEN WITH WHIPS

Monday Feb 15, 7pm: THE GUNFIGHTER

Thursday Feb 18, 7pm: JOHNNY GUITAR

FORTY GUNS

Fuller’s film shares with Johnny Guitar the title of ‘a western like no other’. Barbara Stanwyck presides over her forty hired guns across the breadth of the CinemaScope screen. Not so much an anti-western, Forty Guns is a melodrama with western elements with a heightened focus on the themes of love and death, sex and violence. (BH)

Saddle up and come on down to the Mercury for the opening of our 2016 Adelaide Cinematheque season, Western style! Classic as well as, ahem, transgressive westerns, prizes for the audience member judged best dressed cowboy or cowgal every night, and wet your whistle with a beer and a terrific Tex-Mex BBQ outside from 6pm. 

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JOHNNY GUITAR

Check out Mal Byrne’s Johnny Guitar review

Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge engage in combat for the love of a guitar toting, reformed gunfighter (Sterling Hayden) in what may be the first camp western in its deliberate exploitation of clichés and their reversal. The scriptwriter Philip Yordan claimed that the film was an anti-McCarthy parable, probably an acknowledgement after the event. The baroque intensity of it all was born from the ultimately successful negotiation of an impending mess. The film amused Nicholas Ray in retrospect. Make of it what you will. (BH)

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RANGLE RIVER (aka Men with Whips)

This curious western based on a story by prolific writer of westerns, Zane Grey, and adapted for the screen by Charles and Elsa Chauvel, was filmed on locations in Gloucester and The Burragorang Valley and directed by an imported Hollywood veteran. It follows the formula of thirties westerns with a ranch manager, well played by American character actor Victor Jory, struggling to protect his boss’s family ranch from the machinations of a villainous neighbour. Critics were impressed by the professionalism of the production (“decidedly the best film produced in Australia so far”), but best of all, this curious film has a secret: underneath a somewhat corny heterosexual romance, a homo-erotic subtext lingers. It’s hilariously intriguing at times, with long lingering stares between the cowboys at un-called for moments and, wait for it, a delicious, directorially expert, prolonged and violent whip fight between the lonesome cowboys to finish the film with a flourish. (GR)

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THE GUNFIGHTER

Gregory Peck is an ageing gunfighter haunted by his past in this classic elegiac western that foreshadows the intimations of tragedy in the darkening of the genre in later decades. (BH)

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THE SEARCHERS

John Wayne is Ethan Edwards, a westerner on a grim revenge mission spanning years; to recover his niece, taken captive by Comanches following the massacre of her family in a raid. Ethan is a racist but the origins of his racism are unexplained. In this he remains a mystery, a persona; both an extension of Wayne’s multiplicity of roles in westerns, and a figure apart. (BH)

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JOHNNY GUITAR REVIEW by Mal Byrne

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

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