Movies & TV / Columns

Nether Regions 03.23.10: Johnny Guitar

March 23, 2010 | Posted by Chad Webb

Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask “Why should I care about a film I have no access to?” My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.


Johnny Guitar

Starring: Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, and Mercedes McCambridge
Directed By: Nicholas Ray
Written By: Philip Yordan and Ben Maddow
Running Time: 105 minutes
Theatrical Release Date: May 26, 1954
Missing Since: 1995
Existing Formats: VHS and all region bootleg DVDs
Netflix Status: Not Available
Availability: Rare

In the opening shots of Johnny Guitar, the titular character (Sterling Hayden – The Asphalt Jungle) sits atop his horse as it slowly makes its way through the mountainous terrain and dirt paths outside an Arizona cattle town. He observes a robbery taking place by four masked men. They are holding up a stagecoach. Johnny stops and watches this occur. What could he do so high up? The foursome ride off with the loot and Johnny continues on his way. He eventually arrives at his destination of Vienna’s, a saloon owned by Vienna (Joan Crawford – What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) herself, who also happens to be Johnny’s ex-lover. The saloon rests on the outskirts of town in a very isolated spot. The town supposedly has a saloon already, but Vienna placed hers where she did for a reason. The railroads will eventually come through the area, and she plans to be ready. Her employees will have equal shares in the profits from this future benefit.

As Johnny enters preparing to reunite with Vienna, a large group swarms in with a corpse. The body is the brother of Emma (Mercedes McCambridge – All the King’s Men), a woman who does not like Vienna one bit. She storms inside with McIvers (Ward Bond – The Searchers), a town leader, the Marshall (Frank Ferguson), and many others. Emma accuses her of being in cahoots with a gang of men led by the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady). Emma is apparently in love with the Dancin’ Kid, but will not admit it. She is also jealous because the Kid wants Vienna. Throw Johnny into the fray and the sexual chaos becomes volatile. Emma is confident that the Kid and his clan robbed the stagecoach. However, the two eye-witnesses were either too far away to make out details, or blinded by the sun. Emma also thinks Vienna helps these men. She and the mob demand answers, but Vienna and company proclaim their innocence. McIvers gives them 24 hours to leave…or they will be dealt with accordingly.

Joan Crawford looking
ready for action as Vienna.

On the surface, Johnny Guitar is a regular Western drama, complete with clichés and a shoot ‘em up conclusion. The deeper layers reveal a more fascinating body with ambitious themes for the period and a lot of “opposites” concerning the characters and their importance. Despite its limited locations and bizarre premise, Johnny Guitar is a compulsively watchable and profoundly resonant piece of work. It is a mesmerizing allegory for McCarthyism and the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee, but it is also a penetrating document on feminism, and a risqué story of underlying lesbianism. That is a lot of ground to cover, but Director Nicholas Ray manages to pull it off while avoiding any ham-fisted tendencies and focusing on subtlety and entertainment above all else.

Though he is hardly the main character, Johnny Guitar is a complex and enthralling enigma portrayed by Sterling Hayden. Johnny’s real last name is Logan, but only Vienna knows that. The Dancin’s Kid’s gang and others notice he has no holster. He only carries a guitar, and plays it fairly well too. He accepted a specific job with Vienna, but knew what seeing her again after 5 years would mean. Hayden is relaxed and compelling as Johnny, who stands idly by as the initial confrontation disperses. Later, when one of the Kid’s buddies, Turkey (Ben Cooper), proves his skills to Vienna, Johnny hears it from the next room and charges to the main area with a pistol firing, knocking Turkey’s gun loose and even pushing it against the wall via bullets. He does have a gun. In fact, the name Logan represents a notorious gunslinger, and even though she hired him for protection, Vienna is worried that he has not changed, and is more gun crazy than ever. He presents himself as a calm and average cowboy, but inside is an anxious fighter ready to snap at any moment.

The priceless reactions to Johnny Guitar’s real name and his abilities with a six-shooter build his reputation instantly. There is a mixture throughout the picture. The first is from Joan Crawford’s Vienna, whose eyes pop out of her head in anger that he let his guard down so easily due to the playful showing off from Turkey, a relatively harmless young man. Turkey gets over the shock and leaves the saloon embarrassed. He never tells the rest of the guys what happened. How would that make him look? The last reaction to “Logan” is the best, but I will leave you to discover that one. Along with Turkey, the Dancin’ Kid, and his other two pals, Corey (Royal Dano) and Bart (Ernest Borgnine), mostly view Johnny as a troublemaker. A short brawl between Johnny and Bart gets the relationship off to a rocky start.

Crawford is simply sensational as Vienna, a blunt, steel-jawed, and passionate woman who has a small empire in mind for the desolate town. She even has a model on display. Vienna often stands determined and straight-faced, which gives you an idea of her personality, especially when threatened. Crawford leans too hard on sappy sentimentality during the one-on-one scenes with Johnny, but the intense verbal sparring between the two overshadows the overly melodramatic moments. She refuses to stand back and allow the town to rot away without changing. She wants more. As powerful and sincere as Crawford is as Vienna, she does not steal the show.

A satisfied Emma
after playing with fire.

Emma Small, described as a “cattle baron”, is more intimidating than most male characters in the Western genre. If faced with her or John Wayne as a foe, the decision would not be easy. The stabbing gaze in her eyes as she burns a hole through Vienna is unbelievable. She is played by Mercedes McCambridge, in a performance that surely deserved awards attention. She is the type of villain that is so merciless and cold that the audience is begging for her demise. In terms of her fondness for the Dancin’ Kid, it is never really admitted from her own mouth. In the beginning scenes, he pulls her out on the floor to dance which results in a surprised expression, followed by one that is more at cozy. Emma is a butch and no nonsense female that is brilliantly realized by McCambridge. If there is one face you remember after this film, it will be hers, and it might haunt you.

The supporting cast is rather eclectic, but certainly lively and terrific at the same time. Ward Bond is McIvers, who wants this rebel group (including Vienna) to race out of town quickly so he can go on with his life. Bond is always reliable, and this is no different. Scott Brady is the Dancin’ Kid, a pretty boy gunslinger that is more concerned with winning Vienna, that is until the 24 hour deadline forces him into a corner. Ben Cooper is Turkey Ralston, the youngest, who just wants to be taken seriously but winds up in over his head. Ernest Borgnine is Bart Lonergan, a burly guy that seems to be always looking for a fight. And Royal Dano is the obedient bookworm Corey, who is more the brains of that four man group than anyone else. John Carradine has a small but unforgettable part as Old Tom. His big scene late in the story is incredibly moving.

If you tear the plot and characters down to its bare essentials, it is about Vienna and Emma. The messy love angles with the men act merely as a skin for the sexual tension beneath between them. Take for example when Emma sets fire to Vienna’s place. The crazy, wild expression on her face says that the motive was a bit more than simple vengeance. Indeed the sexual dynamics flowing from person to person is warped, but still entrancing. Emma’s desire to have the townsfolk testify against Vienna and company recalls the House Un-American Activities Committee “witch-hunts” during this time when alleged communists were forced to name names of other suspected communists. It is integrated wonderfully, and is never overbearing or preachy, yet the message is clear.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Johnny Guitar are the costumes by Sheila O’Brien. Emma and most of the town’s posse dress in all black. Her dress is long and covers everything. Remember, Vienna and the four man group, led by the Dancin’ Kid, are perceived as villains by them. The Dancin’ Kid uses a slick look for a rambunctious cowboy, and Johnny dresses in pretty much the same outfit the whole time. Joan Crawford, as Vienna, switches costumes and colors quicker than you can imagine though. At times she also wears dark colors, but always with a brightly colored bow around her neck. She also has a white gown on while waiting for the posse late in the film, not to mention a yellow shirt that stands out in any crowd. This sets Vienna, Johnny, The Dancin’ Kid, and his group apart from the townspeople, who all wear similar colors. There is no question as to who the outsiders are. The colors also coincide with their moods and the feelings they sometimes can’t to exhibit openly.

Numerous legends about the filming have been discussed and debated. Joan Crawford wanted Claire Trevor for the role, nicknamed the “Queen of film-noir” as she was known for her many “bad girl” roles. The studio wisely chose Mercedes McCambridge instead, but Crawford was so infuriated by working with her throughout the shoot that she threw her costumes out into the highway. They then had to be gathered up by the staff. McCambridge was quoted as saying Crawford was “a mean, tipsy, powerful, rotten-egg lady.” Director Nicholas Ray reportedly did not like this film, and thought the novel by Roy Chanslor, of which this is loosely based, was “completely valueless.” The low budget, combined with the incessant Crawford squabbles, in addition to the fact that he, screenwriters Philip Yordan, and blacklisted Ben Maddow basically used the skeleton of the plot to create their own vision makes it no shock that Ray was not fond of this effort. Nonetheless, age has been kind to its legacy.

An awesome fake
Criterion cover.
Maybe it will be a reality someday.

Many critics scoffed at Johnny Guitar as nothing more than a pretentious potboiler, while French writers adored it. Over the years, it has gained a significant following. Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar pays homage to it in his 1988 release, Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, in many different scenes, one of which involves a character dubbing Vienna’s voice. Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader calls it one of the 100 best American films. In 2008, the film was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry. The principal themes bravely raise it to a better level, but Ray infuses his picture with a boldness, an elegance, and a raw quality that is infectious.

Nicholas Ray was a director that rose from experience in radio broadcasting, studied architecture with Frank Lloyd Wright (whose influence can be observed in the set design), and finally in theater, which led him to the film industry. Of the few films I have seen from Nicholas Ray, Rebel Without a Cause was the first, and it made an immediate impact on me, and heightened my love for film from then on. He incorporates one of his recurring themes, centering on two lovers wanting to live a peaceful life, into Johnny Guitar with sophistication. He constructs a near anti-Western, one that dismisses certain conventions of the genre by reversing the functions of men and women. It should be called a theatrical melodrama more so than a Western, but in fact one is a splendid backdrop for the other.

As aggravating as it was with Crawford, his chemistry with the crew is undeniable. Cinematographer Harry Stradling is close to flawless in his duties with the Trucolor photography style. The saturated coloring amplifies the dreamlike facets that Westerns tend to contain. Whether it is day or night, inside a saloon or outside close to a waterfall, Stradling does a magnificent job capturing the proper aura of each and every precise situation. Editor Richard L. Van Enger manipulates the transitions adeptly to make the rhythm of Johnny Guitar thrilling and efficient. The score from Victor Young is excellent and versatile as it shifts from suspenseful to haunting to action-packed music with ease. The song that begins as the film closes, by Peggy Lee, is also quite fitting and appropriate.

Freud would have a field day with Johnny Guitar, the sexual symbolism, the repression, and the concealed agendas. Johnny Guitar is as peculiar, eccentric, and furtive as it was decades ago, but like Vertigo, it is a classic that offers something new and irreplaceable with each subsequent viewing. With as little times as this has been seen by the public, its mysteries have just begun to be revealed. Nicholas Ray survived the nuisance of Joan Crawford to complete a uniquely fabulous and lingering drama. I was able to track down “Region 0” DVD, which is basically a bootleg, but the VHS can still be found through Amazon used sellers. If any film has warranted the royal treatment on DVD, it is this one. Do yourself a favor and seek it out now. It is worth the time and effort.

Final Rating = 10.0/10.0

Set your Tivo’s to this Friday at 4:30 PM on TCM if you want to see the movie on TV!

The Heartbreak Kid – Still Out of Print
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The Taking of Pelham 123 (1998-TV) – Still Out of Print
The Stepfather – Now Available
The Stepfather 2 – Now Available
The Stepfather 3 – Still Out of Print
Phantasm II – Now Available
Red Cliff Part 1 and Part 2 – All Versions Now Available
America, America – Still Out of Print
Salem’s Lot – Still Out of Print
A Return to Salem’s Lot – Still Out of Print
Latin Lovers – Still Out of Print
State Fair (1933) – Still Out of Print
The African Queen – Now Available
Wings – Still Out of Print
Cavalcade – Still Out of Print
Sleuth (1972) – Still Out of Print

Closing Thoughts

So upon viewing My Summer Story, a 1994 sequel to A Christmas Story, I realized that PBS made a series of TV movies based on the Parker family, all of which are hard to find and could end up being in this column someday. Anyway, the 1994 flick was terrible, with Charles Grodin making a fool out of himself as “The Old Man.” Kieran Culkin does his best as Ralphie, but we can only care so much about him finding a killer spinning top. In addition to reviewing a few DVDs for 411, I’m trying to finish a Mel Brooks Blu-Ray box set I rented a couple weeks ago. Silent Movie was fantastic. I did get a chance to hear the Gorrilaz’s new album Plastic Beach, which was quite good. Not every track is great, but I enjoyed it thoroughly.

This Sunday is Wrestle Mania 26, which should be exciting. The night before is the Hall of Fame Ceremony, but boy is that a let down this year. Not taking away anything from the inductees, the group is too small. The only up side is that maybe they will have the freedom to speak longer. Raw last night was pretty “meh” overall, but that’s to be expected. I’m not finished with Impact yet, but Team Hogan and Team Flair is not causing me to want to finish it right away.

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