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Critic’s Notebook: Why ‘Johnny Guitar,’ Now On Blu-ray, Deserves a Second Look

Critic's Notebook: Why 'Johnny Guitar,' Now On Blu-ray, Deserves a Second Look

“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.

“Johnny Guitar” was conceived as a vehicle for Joan Crawford by b-picture screenwriter and novelist Roy Chanslor, optioned by the star, and sold to Republic in a package deal pairing Crawford and Nicholas Ray by MCA’s pioneering super agent and future head of Universal Studios, Lew Wasserman. Crawford and Ray had previously hooked up romantically, a relationship that ended prior to “Johnny Guitar” going before the cameras and that likely didn’t help bring harmony to what was by most a accounts a test of wills between star and director for most of the film’s Sedona Arizona and Studio City shoot. Screenwriter Philip Yordan was brought in to punch-up Crawford’s dialogue past the point where she could be upstaged by anyone in a very strong cast, particularly recent Oscar winner McCambridge, whom the star apparently treated atrociously. Blacklisted screenwriter Ben Maddow may or may not have contributed as well. During a mid-80’s film introduction at the Telluride Film Festival, a French director whom I’m almost positive was Bertrand Tavernier (the altitude, the 18 hour-plus movie binges, and the quarter century since have taken a toll) recalled two goals when he first traveled to Hollywood: meeting Tex Avery and finding out who really wrote “Johnny Guitar,” then explained that he only fulfilled the former ambition.

Whether by credited or uncredited writers or by whatever exploratory rehearsal and improvisation possible on a poverty row A-picture schedule with leads that were not exactly Actors Studio approved, there is scene work and dialogue in “Johnny Guitar” that far surpasses the more celebrated windbreaker-wringing histrionics of Ray’s “Rebel Without a Cause.” An encounter between Crawford and Hayden in which they first assess and then repair the damage from a prior romance absent from Chanslor’s book remains one of my favorite dialogue scenes in film. The fact that it was nearly laughed off the screen the last time I saw “Johnny Guitar” screened in repertory is another reason to be grateful for a home video release.

Nick Ray’s formative professional bio goes something like this: Wisconsin born (like Orson Welles and Joseph Losey), German-American, mentored by a who’s who of mid-twentieth century creatives including Thornton Wilder, Frank Lloyd Wright, Alan Lomax and Elia Kazan, a veteran of WPA theater, radio and field recording, and eventual recipient of a contract with RKO where he made or contributed to nearly a dozen films underHoward Hughes. Though shelved for two years, Ray’s first feature, “They Live By Night,” is one of American cinema’s greatest debuts. By the time he took the “Johnny Guitar” assignment Ray was already a magician with actors of varied training with a keen ear for American regional vernacular, a penchant for populism and a dogged obsession with the tragic emotional and dramatic truths that were the primary concern of the other artists who emerged from the left leaning mid-20th century New York experimental stage community.

For its first third, “Johnny Guitar” is an ingeniously realized piece of filmed theater. After Hayden’s Johnny dismounts outside Vienna’s and enters the arena within, the film unspools in real time for the next 30 minutes — inter-cutting between Vienna’s saloon, its kitchen, her boudoir, and back outside again. Along the way, we’re dramatically briefed on the railroad conspiracy, Vienna and Emma’s homicidal enmity, start a ticking clock ultimatum to leave town, establish two different love triangles, discover the same body twice, hear the virtues of caffeine and tobacco extolled more memorably than anywhere else in cinema, learn that the Dancing Kid can dance and that Johnny Guitar can play guitar, briefly reenact a gender-reversed version of the preliminary “As Time Goes By” exchange in Curtiz’ “Casablanca,” share a moment of faux direct camera address, enjoy the late, great Ernest Borgnine in one of the best pre-Oscar thug roles and learn that our title character might better be called “Johnny Six-gun.” End of Act I.

The good news for Ray was that he was given an opportunity to work in color for the second time. The bad news was that it was in Republic’s house color process Trucolor, which had evolved from a two primary color end run around three strip Technicolor’s golden age exclusive, to a fair-weather three-hued negative and print stock that was a precursor to the dreaded, fade-friendly enemy of archivists — Eastmancolor. Olive Films “Johnny Guitar” disc shows off the film’s crazy-quilt color scheme — from Crawford’s trademark red slash of a mouth and garish fashion evolution to transitional dissolves that Ray and cameraman Harry Stradling were obliged to do in-camera to keep from adding grain and color distortions when printed — with remarkable fidelity to the source and not to the decades of fading to come.

Critics often trace Ray’s bold, emotionally eloquent compositions and particular knack for framing interior space (particularly in the Cinemascope framed films to come) to the director’s brief youthful tenure as a Frank Lloyd Wright Talesian fellow. Who but Nick Ray would envision Vienna’s eponymous saloon interior as split level  combination of cliff rock, planks, angled beams, gambling tables, a stage and a balcony? The saloon main space is so weirdly modern that it could almost have been the work of fabled 60’s James Bond production architect Ken Adam. It certainly has no equivalent in any other Republic western set I’ve ever seen.

Just as last fall it was apparently incumbent on every entertainment journalist to find a tie in to Occupy Wall Street, I’m happy to report that “Johnny Guitar” is easy to root in topic one during 2012’s summer of the comic book film. More than any other of Nicholas Ray’s pictures “Johnny Guitar” carries the DNA of the director’s fascination with sequential art. While apprenticing at RKO, Ray hosted weekly gatherings at the Luau bar in Beverly Hills during which he and a quartet of the studio’s staff picture editors pored over “Terry and the Pirates,” “Steve Canyon,” “Dick Tracy” and other newspaper strips of the day that exemplified clear, concise film grammar and, on Sundays at least, the story psychology (and lunacy) of color. Maybe that’s the real source of the dream factor in “Johnny Guitar.”

There are any number of contemporary genre films that use over-cutting, hackneyed dialogue, undernourished character writing and lazily efficient and familiar action staging to make the unimaginative and oversimplified seem somehow confusing. In “Johnny Guitar,” Nicholas Ray made a film that might as well have been plotted and pitched in fevered psychosis seem as persuasively organized and lucid as a dream or something fresh from master cartoonists Milton Canniff or Will Eisner’s drawing board. In doing so Ray made a completely over the top film that evokes the gender inequality, witch hunt sensibility and civic timidity within the mid-50’s culture that produced it more memorably than any other western movie of its era.

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