"Was I dreaming or did I just see a bank held up?" asks Sterling Hayden during Nicholas Ray's sole Republic Studios directorial outing, "Johnny Guitar." The 1954 film, which arrives on blu-ray Tuesday as part of Olive Films' carefully curated home video cull of Paramount titles (Viacom absorbed the Republic catalog in the 90's) is paced with such unapologetic relentlessness that midway through the film its title character needs a reality check.
The 1950's were the American western's greatest decade and 1954, which also included Robert Aldrich's "Apache" and "Vera Cruz," as well as Allen Dwan's "Silver Lode," was a banner year for revitalizing the genre with more accurate history, psychological nuance, cynicism and violence than had come before. On a superficial level the red dirt world of "Johnny Guitar" overlaps the plea for racial justice of "Apache," the treatise on mercenary opportunism in "Vera Cruz," and the anti-McCarthy witch hunt critique smuggled into "Silver Lode." But the physical setting of "Johnny Guitar" is one in which hillsides explode, an underground tunnel equipped with fresh clothes appears when a cavernous saloon/casino dug into solid rock is put to the torch, and outlaws escape to a secret mountaintop hideout accessible only by waterfall and apparently invisible from the outside like a stone and timber Shangri-La.
Most 50's psycho-westerns look at the genre, its heroes and American frontier history they inhabit through a glass darkened by the realities of WWII. "Johnny Guitar" views the western through a Jungian kaleidoscope. Ray's follow up film, the 1955 Jimmy Cagney western "Run For Cover" (also released last month by Olive), is so sturdily conventional in comparison that it could serve as an apologia.
"Johnny Guitar" holds a potentially familiar quality for contemporary first-time viewers steeped more in the American western's European descendants than in vintage homegrown horse opera. There's a similarly remote cliff side dwelling built by a similarly entrepreneurial outsider filled with similar totems and materials evincing a similar commitment to a similar railroad boom to come in Sergio Leone's "One Upon a Time in the West." And then there's that mysterious stranger with the musical instrument slung around his neck...
To be fair, Leone's magnum opus is something of an influences Frankenstein. Leone's biographer Christopher Frayling counts 57 instances of homage, quotation or appropriation in the 1968 film. Despite its sudden violence, capitalism critique and extravagant recreations of a rocky frontier considerably more tangible and historically accurate than anything that would ever be shot at Republic, Leone's picture is in at least one major respect the more traditional and less radical of the two films.
Though played with absolute conviction and a delicious sweaty physicality by Claudia Cardinale (and gilded off screen with one of Morricone's most haunting lullabies) Jill, the heroine of "Once Upon a Time in the West," is essentially a stock whore-with-a-heart-of-gold character whose rather passive participation in her own kidnapping, seduction, and deliverance is more in line with a Griffith melodrama than a Vietnam-era foreign film heroin.
In comparison, Vienna (Joan Crawford), the gun-toting proprietress of the saloon that bears her name and cradles her ambitions in "Johnny Guitar," is a garish embodiment of unapologetic, unsentimental, and potentially lethal feminine self-reliance. "A man can lie, steal, and even kill, but as long as he hangs onto his pride, he's still a man," she tells Sterling Hayden's Johnny, her eyes boring holes into his. "All a woman has to do is slip once and she's a tramp."
The magnitude of that tramp-ness (Vienna makes patently clear the degree of intimacy of the "confidences" she shared to earn "every board, plank and beam," in her joint) sets "Johnny Guitar" apart from the Spaghetti Westerns to come and from other domestic female-dominated "Westrogens" of post-war Hollywood, like Sam Fuller's "Forty Guns" and Andre de Toth's "Ramrod." Not even "Rancho Notorious," Fritz Lang's quasi-musical “hate, murder and revenge" saga starring Marlene Dietrich (arguably the only Hollywood icon likely to have surpassed Joan Crawford as the face that launched a thousand drag acts), can match the kick, kink and splash of Ray's rondo of jealousy, regret, spite, gritted teeth, and mob violence.
Setting aside the business about the coming railroad (and a stage coach robbery, a bank robbery, a brother's murder, two faded romances, one rekindled romance, a gunfighter's "gun-crazy" conscience, a secret silver mine, and a handful of other plot tributaries), the main event of "Johnny Guitar" is a throwdown between Crawford's gun-toting Vienna and similarly strapped and utterly seething Mercedes McCambridge as lynch-happy she-weasel Emma Small. Allied with a fellow cattle baron played by Ward Bond, with whom she shares custody-through-intimidation of the town marshal, Emma is jealous enough of Vienna's relationship with a local n'er-do-well called the Dancing Kid (marvelously chimp-lipped Brooklyn native Scott Brady -- in real life a sibling of film noir bete noire Laurence Tierney) and covetous enough of Vienna's forward-thinking choice of a depot-friendly locale to drive a posse into a lynch frenzy that doesn't abate until the film's climactic all-girl shootout.