“There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforward there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray.”
The quote is from Jean-Luc Godard and whether you agree or think him mildly mad, it is certainly true that those who admire Ray are often besotted enough to resort to hyperbole. Count me in as far as Johnny Guitar is concerned. But I’ll try to contain myself.
This baroque and deliriously stylised Western, along with Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious and Raoul Walsh’s Pursued, proves it is possible to lift the genre into the realms of Freudian analysis, political polemic and even Greek tragedy.
Sterling Hayden, an actor who wasn’t exactly a major star but certainly had an unforgettable screen presence, is Johnny Guitar, a gunslinger who is summoned by his ex-lover Vienna (Joan Crawford) to protect her saloon from the violent opposition of the locals, who fear her plans to build a rail station.
Led by Mercedes McCambridge’s Emma, who loves Scott Brady’s Dancin’Kid, who is obsessed with Vienna, they give her 24 hours to leave town. Finally, Emma kills the Kid and then goes after Vienna.
It is difficult to describe what makes Johnny Guitar so fascinating, except to say that Ray’s orchestration of Philip Yordan’s almost literary screenplay gives a small budget film, made for Republic Studios, a kind of heady but clipped dignity which renders Truffaut’s remark about a “hallucinatory Western” seem a good deal less daft than Godard’s.
On the political level, which was more important then than now, the film is a brave indictment of the McCarthyite bigotry that swept America during the fifties – “an impression of the present,” one American critic wrote at the time, “filmed through the myths of the past”.
No movie is unrelated to the time in which it was made and every film changes when viewed from a different time. So perhaps the most affecting feature of the film now is it’s deep romanticism. Johnny, who no longer carries a gun, is still in love with Vienna. But she is now an independent woman in control of her own destiny. If he wants her back, he’s going to have to take her on her own terms. Even as he saves her from her rabid, almost pathological enemies, he knows that.
The film is infinitely detailed and infinitely complicated. It was made at a juncture in movie history when Westerns were attempting to rid themselves of the Hopalong Cassidy-Roy Rogers matinee image, and it’s pretty sure that Ray used Crawford, who wanted to play up rather than down-market, because he was attracted to her, like Johnny to Vienna.
What she does in the film transcends either camp or melodrama. It’s like watching a legend at work throwing off her previous baggage and gaining a new acting skin. As for Hayden, his almost stiff stillness, which could be dull (in duller moves) here seems remarkable.
Of course the film is an acquired taste. Not every American film beloved by Cahiers gets the British behind it. But there is no doubt that Ray, always a maverick and finally a tragic, neglected figure surrounded by obsequious young acolytes and filmed on his death bed by Wim Wenders in the doubtfully intrusive but admiring Lightning Over Water, could make great films.
For myself, Johnny Guitar is one of them. For all its slightly tatty sets and off-the-mark decor, the film abounds in wonderful lines and acting that doesn’t betray them. If you are still unconvinced, just have a look at this scene:
Johnny: How many men have you forgotten?
Vienna: As many women as you’ve remembered.
Johnny: Don’t go away.
Vienna: I haven’t moved.
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.