Johnny Guitar

dir. Nicholas Ray

TIFF Cinematheque - Retrospective

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A super-butch Joan Crawford sports lean jeans and a six-shooter in Nicholas Ray’s deliriously stylized, gender- and genre-bending western classic.
François Truffaut called Johnny Guitar a "hallucinatory" western, and you may feel like you've popped one too many peyotes as you stare into the Trucolor delirium of Ray's gorgeous Freudian/Wagnerian/Sophoclean/Marxist/anti-McCarthyist/feminist/gender- and genre-bending classic. Joan Crawford, beyond butch in jut-jaw and lean jeans, is saloon owner Vienna, whose gunslinging ex-lover Johnny Guitar (stolid Sterling Hayden) arrives from the past to protect her from the lynching locals who object to her plans for modernizing the town. The struggle, however, is less about land than about love: Vienna's arch-nemesis Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge, hellfire in a dress) is fixated on the Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady), who has eyes only for Vienna. When Emma and Vienna, the virago and the valkyrie, finally have their duel in the sun, the vehemence with which Crawford and McCambridge do battle suggests they are carrying whole stagecoaches of extra-filmic baggage. (McCambridge was married to a man whom Crawford had recently dated.) Despite the occasional camp histrionics, Johnny Guitar is shot through with Ray's dark romanticism and a fascinating coding of locales, colours and clothes (watch what happens to Vienna's white dress and to Emma's black-veiled hat) to serve the film's sexual and political allegory.