Archive for August 3rd, 2009

Johnny Guitar posterContinuing on from my stagecoach article here is another western, or is it?  Is Johnny Guitar a western or a hard boiled noir disguised as a western?  The characters spend a lot of time facing off against each other with more dialogue been fired back and forth than bullets.  Most of the action takes place indoors and a simple change of costume would have made it a gangster noir or a melodrama.  Whatever it is it is a million miles away from John Ford’s epic expansive westerns.  Directed By Nicholas Ray and shot using the Trucolor process.  It is bright and vivid with bold colours exaggerated costumes and over stylised detail. 

Johnny Guitar joan crawfordJohnny ‘Guitar’ Logan (Sterling Hayden) arrives at Saloon just outside a small Arizona town.  Local landowner Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) controls the town and its Marshal (Frank Fergason).  She is desperate to drive saloon owner Vienna (Joan Crawford) out of town using Vienna’s connections to a local gang (who she believes responsible for robbing the stagecoach) as an excuse.  Although the film is called Johnny Guitar the character of Johnny Guitar is a secondary character to Crawford’s Vienna.  The film is all about Vienna and Emma’s relationship.  Vienna is waiting for the railroad to come to town so she can build her own town around the saloon and profit from it.  The railroad (in western movies) is a sign of progress and change, it brings new people and new opportunities to the area and represents the American dream.  Emma represents the wealthy land owners who want to maintain the status quo.  So Johnny Guitar is a film about the birth of a nation like so many other westerns? 

 Warning this paragraph contains plot spoilers.

Johnny Guitar cPossibly but there is something else going on.  The screenplay was written by Ben Maddow who had been blacklisted, the credited writer Philip Yordan fronted for him and shared the fee.  With this information it is easy to see the film as representing the communist “witch-hunts”.  All the elements are in place Emma and the towns people represent House Un-American Activities Committee, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and the people who yield to the pressure from such groups. In one scene the marshal says “Either you side with them or with us”.  Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) and his gang run from the posse as many people did from the witch-hunts.  Turkey Ralston (Ben Cooper) is forced to “cooperate” he is told “You’ve got a rope around your neck son. You better talk”.  He is forced to name Vienna as been complicit in a robbery, even though the posse know it isn’t true.  One of the gang Bart Lonergan (Ernest Borgnine) betrays the gang to ensure his own safty.  Vienna and Johnny are the people who appose them, in essence the film makers who make films like this.  Whatever your interpretation the actions of Emma they do come across as unfair to the entrepreneurial spirit of Vienna.  Is this un American?  Put in a historical context just five years after the film was made former President Harry S. Truman described the House Un-American Activities Committee as the “most un-American thing in the country today.”

Johnny Guitar bThat’s getting a bit heavy, what you really want to know, is the film any good?  Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard certainly thought so, they were notable fans.  If you are looking for a traditional western you may be disappointed.  If you go into the film with an open mind you will forget that sets don’t quite fit and that rear projection and matte painted backgrounds are used on a lot of exteriors and be swept away with the compelling story and great dialogue. 

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