“Johnny Guitar” (1954)

Directed by Nicholas Ray
Republic Pictures
USA, 110 minutes
Starring Sterling Heyden, Joan Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge, Scott Brady

Nicholas Ray is a director I really need to see more of. Thanks to TCM, I’ve been able to see Rebel Without A Cause, a brilliant film that proves that there was a time when teenage idols could actually act. Johnny Guitar, his 1954 western, is only the second Ray I’ve had a chance to see. It’s weird, strange, but oh, so good.

Sterling Hayden plays Johnny Guitar, who is hired by Vienna (Joan Crawford) to play guitar at her saloon. Unfortunately, Johnny has really poor timing because as soon as he comes in, a blustering collection of townspeople, including a really pissed off Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), come in. It turns out, on their way back to town, they were robbed by an unknown gang who also killed one of their members. However, like a typical pissed off Lang mob, they put their blame on The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), with whom it is known that Vienna has some kind of relationship. So, the story spirals off from there in a whirlwind of 110 minutes.

I have read that the film, which even a novice to the Western like me can tell is not normal, is campy, but I don’t see it. Sure the story is hardly believable and Vienna and Emma hate each other so much (both actresses did in real life as well) that it almost becomes funny, but there does not seem to be anything campy at all going on here. In fact, Johnny Guitar could probably be seen as an indictment on the repetitive nature of  classical Westerns.  The idea that Johnny’s never-ending list of abilities keeps growing (he can play guitar like nobody’s business and has the fastest gun in the west) pokes fun at the invincible Western hero.

Johnny Guitar is a remarkable film that more people should know about. Unfortunately, a lack of a Region 1 DVD (or Blu-Ray) release keeps it from getting any attention outside of film buffs. Thankfully, if you have Comcast cable, TCM has the film up for free onDemand in a pretty nice print. The colors, processed by Republic’s TrueColor process, are very vibrant, but a lot of times they seem to pulsate and flicker. Still, see it while you can.

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