Movie still from ”Johnny Guitar”, 1954, directed by Nicholas Ray | Republic Pictures
The Editorial: thoughts, short stories
or essays about the world of cinema
There is a sequence in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar where the lawmen all wear black. These are supposedly “respectable citizens” who try to defend their land from the arrival of the Eastern people and the railroad. They are all men, all except one, Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge). She is their ringleader. She wears a dress, but it’s black, too, and sober and she has a pistol under her belt. Joan Crawford represents the threat. She is Vienna, a self-made woman, the owner of a saloon in the outskirts of the small Old West town, waiting to cash in because the railroad will pass right through her property. In this particular scene, Vienna is wearing a white gown and she is playing the piano against an orange stone wall. The visual composition of this scene, alternating between Crawford all dressed in pure white and that assembly of human hypocrisy in head-to-toe black, is astonishing and even more striking than the vivid, painterly colours (the reds and yellows and blues) used by Nicholas Ray throughout the entire movie – it was filmed in Trucolor.
Joan Crawford in ”Johnny Guitar”, 1954, directed by Nicholas Ray | Republic Pictures
Johnny Guitar – at its 65th anniversary next month – is a colour Western Noir, and this is just one of the elements that contribute to its uniqueness, and also why that black and white costumes sequence is so haunting. Nicholas Ray, one of the pioneer independent American filmmakers, broke down the rigid barriers of the Western genre, not just in the extreme stylization of the film, but also in reversing the colour coding and especially genre archetypes, one of the very first films that did that (and to a greater extent than Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, 1954, with Marlene Dietrich, or Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns, 1957, with Barbara Stanwyck). In Johnny Guitar, women – Vienna and Emma – assume roles previously exclusively reserved to men, while men are a little more than mere objects of desire for the two.
We first see Vienna atop a staircase, dressed in a black buttoned up shirt, black trousers and black leather boots. She soon points the gun to the same group that would later return wearing black (the men of the town and Emma, or better said Emma and her posse of cowboys and lackeys whom she easily dominates). They burst into Vienna’s saloon and home, trying to put the blame of a stagecoach robbery on her. Vienna is prepared to defend herself and her property at all costs. Crawford’s bigger than life star persona and her steely look suited this raw, man’s-world role, and her red lipstick seems to be the only thread of femininity left – “I never met a woman who was more a man,” observes one of her bartenders talking to her former lover, Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden). It is not however, because the delicate white dress worn later in the film in that visually staggering sequence shows she still holds on to her feminine sensitivity.
Crawford is magnificent in her role. Strong, mannish, gun-slinging, shrewd and unapologetic about her choices and her past, she builds her character from the ground up and yet she doesn’t let you all in. She is void of sentimentality and feminine stereotypes. It’s more than a defensive mechanism, one that is closely linked to a past love and which re-enters her life, Johnny Guitar. It’s living life by her own rules. “A man can lie, steal, and even kill, but as long as he hangs onto his pride, he’s still a man,” she tells Sterling Hayden’s Johnny, piercing him with her stark black eyes. “All a woman has to do is slip once and she’s a tramp.”
Vienna has another male suitor, Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), who is also the object of interest for the other female protagonist, Emma. “He makes her feel like a woman and that scares her,” Vienna says about Emma and Dancin’ Kid. It’s in fact Vienna’s freedom and independence, experienced as a woman, that Emma is lusting.
Nicholas Ray’s film is so twisted, and unconventional, and operatic, and political and ahead of its time (with a counter-culture and women’s liberation subtext), and cinematic, and mythical, all in one, that I have to quote François Truffaut’s ode to it: “It is dreamed, a fairy tale, a hallucinatory Western”, “the Beauty and the Beast of Westerns, a Western dream”. He concluded: “Anyone who rejects Johnny Guitar should never go to the movies again, never see any more films. Such people will never recognize inspiration, poetic intuition, or a framed picture, a shot, an idea, a good film, or even cinema itself.”
Royal Dano, Joan Crawford and Scott Brady in ”Johnny Guitar”, 1954, directed by Nicholas Ray | Republic Pictures