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One of the strangest westerns on record, Johnny Guitar has less in common with Zane Grey than it does with Sigmund Freud and Krafft-Ebbing. The title character, played by Sterling Hayden, is a guitar-strumming drifter who was once the lover of Arizona saloon-owner Vienna (Joan Crawford). Though her establishment doesn't make a dime, Vienna doesn't care because the railroad is going to come in soon, bringing a whole slew of thirsty new customers. This puts her at odds with bulldyke rancher Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), ...


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Apr 18, 2020

Watching Johnny Guitar During The Pandemic

I have been watching several high-budget classic westerns during the coronavirus quarantine including "Red River", "The Searchers", "The Wild Bunch", and the 1957 and 2007 versions of "The 3:10 to Yuma". These films are large-scaled affairs from major studios that have long been included on lists of the best American westerns and
best American films. These films offer much to think about in their interpretation of the United States and its promise.

At first glance, "Johnny Guitar" is in seeming contrast to these highly-regarded films. The film is a B movie released in 1954 by Republic Pictures, a small company known for cost-cutting and for the quick production of films designed for a large audience. Yet, "Johnny Guitar" is still a masterpiece and is also one of the strangest films in the western genre. The film is listed in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" as well as on other listings of best American films.

Nicholas Ray directed this film which stars Sterling Hayden as the title character. But the real attractions in the film are the two female leads, Joan Crawford, who plays an ex-prostitute Vanessa, who has built a saloon on the outskirts of an Arizona town in the path of an oncoming railroad and Mercedes McCambridge, who plays Emma, a wealthy rancher and a bitter enemy of Vanessa. The story turns when Johnny Guitar, a former lover of Vanessa's and a gunfighter under his name of Johnny Logan, comes to town to work for Vanessa. His arrival helps precipitate a confrontation between Vanessa and a local gang and the ranchers who want Vanessa and the gang out of the way. The story intensifies quickly, leading to violence.

This film is, indeed, over-the-top, camp, and extreme. Vanessa and Emma fight bitterly in part over a man in the gang. Many viewers see as well a smoldering love relationship between the two women. Both Crawford and McCambridge act brilliantly with their dislike for each other, (which extended beyond acting) palpable., McCambridge exudes both hatred and sexual frustration in her role as Emma, the unrepentant villain of the piece.. The costuming in the film is garish and becomes increasingly so as it proceeds. The story is flamboyant and wildly romantic in its feelings with sharp, brilliant dialog. The movie includes strong elements of film noir together with its feminism and its extreme characters and situations The women are the leading characters in this movie and dominate the men with their presence. The title song is performed throughout the film by Peggy Lee, who also wrote the lyrics, and has become famous in its own right.

"Johnny Guitar" is a strange film, particularly for its time, and may not be to the taste of every viewer. It shows the adaptability of the western genre to many different types of films and different ways of viewing the West. The film is a classic but may not be to the taste of every viewer. I loved it.

Robin Friedman

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