Director: Nicholas Ray
Production: Republic Pictures; Trucolor, 35mm, Cinemascope; running time: 110 minutes. Released November 1954. Filmed 1953.
Producer: Herbert J. Yates; screenplay: Philip Yordan, from the novel by Roy Chanslor; photography: Harry Stradling, Jr.; editor: Richard L. Van Enger; sound: T. A. Carmen and Howard Wilson; production designer: John McCarthy, Jr. and Edward G. Boyle; art director: James Sullivan; music: Victor Young, with title song by Victor Young and Peggy Lee, sung by Peggy Lee; special effects: Howard and Theodore Lydecker; costume designer: Sheila O'Brien.
Cast: Joan Crawford ( Vienna ); Sterling Hayden ( Johnny Guitar ); Mercedes McCambridge ( Emma Small ); Scott Brady ( Dancin' Kid ); Ben Cooper ( Turkey ); Ward Bond ( John McIvers ); Ernest Borgnine ( Bart Lonergan ); John Carradine ( Tom ); Royal Dano ( Corey ); Frank Ferguson ( Sheriff ); Paul Fix ( Eddie ); Rhys Williams ( Mr. Andrews ); Ian McDonald ( Zeke ); Will Wright ( Ned ); John Maxwell ( Jake ); Robert Osterloh ( Sam ); Frank Marlowe ( Frank ); Trevor Bardette ( Jenks ); Sumner Williams, Sheb Wooley, Denver Pyle, and Clem Harvey ( Possemen ).
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* * *
Johnny Guitar certainly represents one of the most important Hollywood westerns, recognized at the time by critics throughout Europe. Critic-turned-auteur Bernardo Bertolucci called it "the first of the baroque westerns," while François Truffaut suggested the admiration members of the French New Wave had for the film when in his own Mississippi Mermaid he had Jean Paul Belmondo say to Catherine Deneuve as they emerged from a screening of Johnny Guitar : "It's not about horses and guns. It's about people and emotions." Jean-Luc Godard in his Pierrot le fou had his alienated "hero" (again Belmondo) recommend Johnny Guitar to his maid, and in Weekend had hippie guerrillas broadcast from their hideout: "Johnny Guitar calling Gosta Berling."
But the origins of Johnny Guitar came amidst tumultuous changes in the American film business of the 1950s, and were far more humble than any art film. Johnny Guitar was produced by a former maker of "B" westerns, Republic Pictures. The studio was long famous for its regular production of westerns starring Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. In the decade following the Second World War, the studio boss, Herbert Yates, sought to move into the big time and indeed challenge the major studios. To do this it turned out a couple of big-budget films per year. Johnny Guitar was one of these. Others included John Ford's The Quiet Man (1952) and Ford's Rio Grande (1950). But none helped enough, and by 1958 the forces of change (television, suburbanization, government decrees) saw Republic shut down production altogether.
In Hollywood lore Johnny Guitar is usually remembered for bringing together a talented group of creators. The movie was director Nicholas Ray's first after leaving RKO, the studio that brought him to Hollywood. At Republic Ray was granted absolute creative freedom, even functioning as the film's producer. Ray was in the midst of his most creative and productive period. His Rebel without a Cause , released the following year, allowed him to function as a mainline director for the next five or so years. But after a number of box-office failures, including King of Kings (1961) and 55 Days at Peking (1963), Ray never worked in Hollywood again. Like another enfant terrible of a decade before, Orson Welles, Nicholas Ray did not fit into the Hollywood system.
But Ray was not the lone talent involved in the creation of this most adult of westerns. Philip Yordan, one of Hollywood's most prolific screenwriters, was at the apex of his career. Indeed the following year he penned a western nearly as complex as Johnny Guitar : Anthony Mann's The Man from Laramie . Veteran cameraman Harry Stradling's almost surreal Trucolor (Republic's own) added just the right look to this garish "oater."
But to movie fans of the era Johnny Guitar is probably most remembered as the western starring two women. Joan Crawford, one of Hollywood's longest running stars, experienced a downturn in her career after her Oscar for Mildred Pierce (1945) and thereafter struggled to fashion a career as "the evil older woman" in an industry that did not know what to do with actresses over the age of 30. In Johnny Guitar Crawford represented depravity incarnate, always dressed in black, willing to do anything to hold on to her small saloon. The woman who wanted to take away that bar, played by Mercedes McCambridge, initiated with Johnny Guitar a career in which she was at her best when playing desperate characters.
Although many have labelled the film as offbeat and baroque, Johnny Guitar is not excessively violent. Its settings were traditional, and the cast included such familiar figures from westerns of the 1950s as Ward Bond and Scott Brady (as "Johnny"). The plot seemed untraditional because there was no powerful central, active male figure. Johnny Logan is a notorious "fast draw" with a reputation that precedes him. But throughout the film Johnny does little except save Vienna (Crawford) at one point. He spends most of his time standing around, watching and commenting on the action.
It is impossible to capture the beauty in this complex genre film in a short essay, but as Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Wilmington wrote at the time of the film's release: "Never trust appearances. Beauty and profundity are not always found in the 'obvious' traditional places; a Trucolor Western from humble Republic can throb with the passion of l'amour fou or whisper with an evening delicacy."