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With: Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, Scott Brady, Ward Bond, Ben Cooper, Ernest Borgnine, John Carradine, Royal Dano, Frank Ferguson, Paul Fix, Rhys Williams, Ian MacDonald
Written by: Philip Yordan, based on a novel by Roy Chanslor
Directed by: Nicholas Ray
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 110
Date: 05/26/1954

Johnny Guitar (1954)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Railroad Tramp

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

One of Nicholas Ray's best films, the garish, full-color Freudian Western Johnny Guitar (1954) is an amazing, weird movie that's not easy to get the first time around.

Star Joan Crawford is at her finest. Dressed all in black, she's Vienna, a saloon-keeper who supports a new railroad coming through town, though most of her customers, cattle ranchers, oppose it. The cattle ranchers are led by the unstable, shrieking Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), a villainess so weirdly stiff and angry that she makes your fists clench.

Johnny Guitar is sometimes called a "Freudian" Western, for its backwards sexual motivations, and belongs to a fascinating subgenre of movies with strong matriarchs: Marlene Dietrich in Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious (1952) and Barbara Stanwyck in Samuel Fuller's Forty Guns (1957).

Sterling Hayden co-stars in the title role, though he's mostly window dressing. He "saves" the day at the end, but it's clear that Vienna and Emma are the movie's true opposing forces. Scott Brady co-stars as "The Dancin' Kid," who comes between Vienna and Emma. Other regular Western character actors like Ward Bond, Ernest Borgnine, and John Carradine show up as well.

The movie is shot in garishly bright colors, and looks and feels strange. I suspect that on the whole Ray's films were too potent, and too full of blood and lust and life to please large audiences. Johnny Guitar's glaring colors burst from the screen, its performances are high-pitched to the point of near-hysteria. But it's a gloriously controlled film, with every piece in place exactly as Ray intended.

Ray had an uncanny knack for establishing a physical space that somehow echoed his characters' emotional state. Picture the planetarium in Rebel Without a Cause, the courtyard in In a Lonely Place (1950), or the snow-covered countryside in On Dangerous Ground (1952). Here, the hilltop hideout underlines the film's hysterical showdown.

Philip Yordan is credited with the screenplay, which is adapted from Roy Chanslor's novel. Harry Stradling was the cinematographer, working with "Trucolor," the lower-rent version of Technicolor that Republic Pictures -- normally a "B" picture studio -- used. Victor Young composed the score, with Peggy Lee singing the title song.

After years of this film being unavailable on DVD in the United States, Olive Films has finally released an official U.S. DVD and Blu-ray. It's not flawless, given the nature of the original material, but it's so nice to have it at last in a high-quality transfer. The only extra, sadly, is the original 3-minute Martin Scorsese introduction that was taped for the VHS release back in the 1990s. But I'm not complaining.

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