Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954)

What a filmmaker this Nicholas Ray is!  What a gift he had for revealing, and inverting, society’s fallacies, gender roles, and prejudices through metaphor!  “Rebel Without a Cause” and “In a Lonely Place” so effortlessly depicted the oddities of gender roles and taboo as Ray really got under your skin, but “Johnny Guitar” may have bested those two, not just because it was an effective metaphor decrying McCarthyism, but because of its depiction of dominant, masculine women in a Western, perhaps the most masculine and male-driven of all genres traditionally.  True, Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge, as saloon owner and cattle rancher respectively, and bitter enemies, really ham it up and ramp up the tell-tale signs of masculinity, to the point that McCambridge’s Emma completely emasculates her less than enthusiastic posse with her near-demonic vitriol of Crawford’s Vienna, but this is 1954, when Westerns still featured heroic gunmen and their damsels in distress, so maybe a bit of exaggeration was needed to get the role-reversal train rolling in the most difficult of genres with which to experiment with that type of thing. 

The film’s title refers to Sterling Hayden’s character (a sad and subtle Sterling Hayden!  Who knew?!), the guitar-strumming former gunslinger and former lover of Vienna hired to protect her and the saloon once she senses that Emma and her goons smell blood, but this isn’t his story.  Plenty of Westerns have dealt with feuds and the coming of the railroad (and thus modern society), but none that I can remember where that feud was between two women, but just as destined for violence and death as any other, and where the men, including the crack-shot Johnny Guitar, are more or less left on the sidelines.  The first big set-piece, a confrontation between Emma’s gang, Vienna, her lover the Dancin’ Kid who Emma accuses of robbing a stagecoach and killing her brother, and a spectating Johnny Guitar, is such a fascinating one, even if it’s nothing more than a bunch of men hurling corny Western-esque macho-isms at each other, basically comparing dick sizes (indeed, later on the Dancin’ Kid admits that he hopes the town finds out that he robbed the bank, just for the notoriety, like he needs that to be a man), while Vienna observes intently from her second-story perch.  They try to act tough, one of the Dancin’ Kid’s insulted goons basically telling Johnny to put up his dukes, but once Vienna speaks up and tells them to take it outside, everything stops and the men calmly walk through those swinging before slugging it out – they know who’s in charge (“I never met a woman who was more man,” the bartender tells Johnny). 

Johnny Guitar might have the résumé of a top-tier gunfighter and have a movie named after him, but once he enters Vienna’s Saloon, he’s basically her tool, her toy, the way the wimpy marshal and posse who dare to have a sliver of a conscience are the tools and toys of the viciously jealous and perpetually enraged Emma.  Later, when we finally learn of Johnny and Vienna’s tumultuous past together, when the cynical but amorous Johnny dares to try to show Vienna who has the pants in this relationship and to rekindle their romance, a fascinating back-and-forth ensues:

Johnny: Tell me something nice.

Vienna: Sure. What do you want to hear?

Johnny: Lie to me. Tell me all these years you’ve waited …

Vienna: All these years I’ve waited.

Johnny: Tell me you’d have died if I hadn’t come back.

Vienna: I would have died if you hadn’t come back.

Johnny: Tell me you still love me like I love you.

Vienna: I still love you like you love me.

Johnny: Thanks. Thanks a lot.

This puts a similar conversation in “Blade Runner,” in which the emasculated Deckard tries to exert the proverbial phallus upon the Replicant/non-woman Rachel by having her repeat ‘womanly’ phrases like “I want you” and “kiss me”, to shame.  Of course Vienna repeats these falsehoods halfheartedly, of course they aren’t true, and Johnny knows it – he just needed to hear her say it.  What a sad scene.  But Vienna just ain’t that kind of woman, even if she does love Johnny, which she does.  There are only two women in this film, and the last word you would ever use to describe either of them is ‘submissive.’

Now that Johnny’s failed at his attempt to come out on top and to pull the marionette strings, this is Vienna’s story through and through, namely her fight against the impossibly spiteful Emma.  There really is no rhyme or reason to how much hate Emma shows, despite the stock reason of the Dancin’ Kid possibly being responsible for her brother’s death and later a bank robbery, and thus Vienna being responsible-by-proxy, or her contempt for the coming railroad, for which Vienna stands to strike it rich and Emma uses fear tactics to try to convince the townspeople that they’ll be ruined (two words came to my mind as Emma made her frighteningly impassioned, xenophobic speech: Sarah Palin.  This movie wasn’t just a metaphor for 1954 society apparently, but a herald for 2009 as well…).  She’s just…evil, filled to her eyeballs with rage, and every ounce of that rage directed at Vienna.  On the surface, it’s because she wanted the Dancin’ Kid, who in turn wanted Vienna, so it’s all out of jealousy, but could Emma be in love with Vienna herself, and her inability to get what she wants because it’s societally unacceptable fuels her rage, causing her to despise that which she cannot have?  Stands to reason, considering how these two careen towards the Western-esque showdown so often reserved for the men while still retaining the romance-driven hopes and desires of women – the sexual ambiguity and dare I say, full-on bisexuality, bleeds from every pore of this film.  Just consider the astonishing scene in which Emma’s posse confronts Vienna in the saloon to demand that she give over the Dancin’ Kid, only to find her playing the piano, decked out in a regal white dress and calmly rebuking the fiery Emma.  Quite a difference from the no-bullshit Vienna we met earlier, dressed like a cowboy, overseeing her establishment from her high perch with that angry, scrunched up Joan Crawford face.  Who’s the real Vienna, the pants-wearing entrepreneur whose male employees obey her without a second thought, or the dress-wearing piano player who feigns ignorance, loves Johnny, and is easily overpowered by Emma’s mob, needing to be saved by Johnny in one of the film’s few moments of reliance on traditional Western gender conventions?  Maybe both.  Also helps that this scene is damned suspenseful and entertaining on its own as a great Western showdown, Vienna on one side, Emma and her posse, hands on holsters and slowly walking forward, on the other, with the sound of a piano punctuating the air as it would in any other saloon right before a potential shootout – just with typical conventions flipped, as it’s sexually ambiguous woman vs. insane and sexually jealous woman.  Vienna’s ambiguous, but boy, Emma ain’t.  You could criticize Mercedes McCambridge’s performance for being far too simplistic and overly-malevolent to the point of being hilarious, but I bought into it the way I bought into Walter Brennan’s performance as Old Man Clanton in “My Darling Clementine” – they’re like wild animals, with no shades of gray (at least in terms of Emma’s being a bitch; in terms of motivations, there are shades of gray up the wazoo), and in a metaphorical genre like a Western, that might be appropriate.  She’s so contemptible that I was fuming in that big showdown scene that she could cause so much bad to happen, as I’m sure many back then were fuming as people were mercilessly fingering others as Reds – the allegory isn’t exactly subtle here.  Vienna ain’t exactly a completely likable character in her own right, what with her obstinate stubbornness and Joan Crawford just being Joan Crawford, but compared to a woman like Emma, you can’t help but align yourself completely with Vienna and worry for her, one woman against an entire posse, a piano and sheer guts at her disposal instead of a gun. 

“Johnny Guitar” works as an entertaining as hell Western in its own right, with larger-than-life performances and gorgeous color and cinematography, even if the production skimped out with cheap-looking sets, but that doesn’t matter when a movie is as purely character-driven as this one is.  It’s also a political metaphor, and as a gender inverter, featuring an inevitable showdown between two uber-masculinized mega-bitches whose motivations are up in the air, and a mysterious guitar-strumming gunfighter who isn’t subservient to Vienna the way the woman would be subservient to the hero in another Western, but rather, her partner in crime.  He’s the supporting player (I guess “Vienna” just wasn’t a sexy enough movie title) while she takes center stage with more at stake for sure, but regardless, they need each other.  This film changed everything about gender roles and relations, and hardly anything at all.



2 comments so far

  1. Lauren on

    Have you seen Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown? I saw it either the day before or after Johnny Guitar. That is the prime time to see it.

  2. Vertie Deschambeault on

    I usually get bored easily and close the tab but i think you have a unique blog. Bravo !

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