Beleaguered by alleged subtext and branded as histrionic camp, Johnny Guitar’s mature and communicative take on the Western has been overshadowed by its academic cachet, forced to incur the projections of over-eager cultural custodians at the expense of its shrewd artistry. If taken at face value, outside of 60 years of exegesis, a humble romanticism reveals itself, amassed from the years of regret worn into the principal characters’ expressions, evoked by fixed close-ups and the lingering doubt central to Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge’s wistful, analogous performances.
As Vienna, Crawford is taut from head-to-toe, the slight curl of her hair acting as the only infraction to a boot-fit frame, each ounce of femininity muted beneath drab rancher’s wear and the occupational truculence demanded of a saloon mistress. The bar’s foundation is just as sturdy as her demeanor, built into the side of a craggy cliff, each jagged shard of rock jutting from behind the bandstand like a porcupine’s quills. It’s a metaphor worthy of her resilience, each shot echoing a respect unbecoming of neighboring vendors, the organic hues from the Trucolor film stock capturing the rosy tint of her cheeks and the burnish of dusty dungarees.
Her croupier has “never seen a woman who was more a man,” that is, until he meets the pugnacious Emma Small (McCambridge). She’s Vienna’s spitting image, tapered a bit in size and confidence, making up for any disadvantages through amplification and avarice. She arrives at the watering hole with posse in tow, using her brother’s death to reignite past grievances with the proprietor and a gunslinging beau, suppressing sexual feelings for the outlaw beneath a veil of righteous indignation.
Detecting weakness in womanhood, Emma and Vienna adapt to male roles to brave the savagery of the Old West, carving out their place in a phallocentric society by mimicking its traits. However, this habituation doesn’t extend to violence and Nicholas Ray shares their pacifistic nature, ignoring a fist fight between the titular, and oddly inconsequential, Johnny (Sterling Hayden) in favor of coy conversation and verbal jousting.
Yet, this affinity for words doesn’t make the declaration any more candid and Ray struggles to solicit conflict and drive with an impersonal distance akin to third-person narration. This discordance between dialogue and visual composition can be jarring, but Johnny Guitar atones for a lack of tension with rhapsodic, photographic intimacy, exposing an ignoble and cruel vision of the Wild West through the sacrifices of two women stripped of their sexuality.
Johnny Guitar (Republic Pictures, 1954)
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Written by Roy Chanslor (novel) and Philip Yordan (screenplay)
Photographed by Harry Stradling
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