Eye For Film >> Movies >> Johnny Guitar (1954) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
In recent decades there have been several attempts to talk about what life was like for women on the wild American frontier, from the pure cheese of Bad Girls to the bitter realism of The Homesman and the well intentioned flimsiness of Jane Got A Gun. This 1954 gunslinging melodrama shows 'em all how it's done. Whilst nominally about a man, it's really a vehicle for Joan Crawford as Vienna, a woman holding her own in a brutal world through sheer force of personality. Sterling Hayden (who couldn't actually play guitar at all) plays second fiddle to her bolshy saloon owner, getting caught in the middle of a dispute that could be the death of them both.
Unusually, Vienna's rival is also a woman, the equally fierce but less sophisticated Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), and the reasons for their disagreement are complex, partly political and partly personal. As Emma urges the men on her side to take violent action,spending most of the film trying to summon up the nerve to take matters into her own hands, Vienna tries to shield her men from harm. The erstwhile Johnny, just arrived from out of town but sharing a secret history with her, doesn't even carry a gun. But this is a man who has changed his name (perhaps presciently, for fear of being confused with an Irish Eurovision Song Contest winner), and he has a few surprises in store for her enemies.
Forty-nine years old when the film was made, Crawford makes a handsome lead, as dashing in trousers as she is elegant in a full on Southern belle ballgown. If anything, she seems more powerful in a dress, emphasising her femininity to make a point of how her gender has been used against her. With the indirect language of its time, the film makes it pretty clear that Vienna has bought her business through sex work and that this is one reason why the townsfolk are willing to rally against her. This background serves the dual purpose of showing us what she has sacrificed to keep her independence -she's not lacking in male suitors who could have given her a socially easier life - and letting us know what the saloon means to her, in turn a reminder of why so many settlers fought against all odds to hold onto their tiny patches of land. Despite Crawford's natural air of superiority, she's a working class heroine pitched against a villain who sneers at 'peasants' and the thought of mere farmers taking over the land her allies use for ranching. Encroaching civilisation and the free spirit of the west - in all its tempting ugliness - are also at war here.
Johnny himself is a far more familiar figure, the mysterious drifter out to atone for a past mistake and ready to educate over-eager youngsters along the way. Though he can't match Crawford's charisma, Hayden does a good enough job of convincing us he's worth something to her, and the manner in which both main players handle tense situations without violence adds an interesting twist to the genre. Of course, violence is inevitable in the end and there's no shortage of action, with Victor Young's punchy score livening up scenes of pursuit and escape. Though a bank robbery halfway through is unusually muted, in general Nicholas Ray squeezes as much drama as he can get out of every scene.
For its age, Johnny Guitar looks and sounds astoundingly good - it has had a recent polish - and it's now getting a well deserved big screen re-release in the UK. For Crawford fans, it's a must.Reviewed on: 04 May 2016