Nicholas Ray’s baroque Western Johnny Guitar is a film of swirling, expressive color, where the only thing more iridescent than the purple and red skies are the ever-changing, almost comically loud costumes. Its clearly artificial, artfully constructed studio West allows for complete control of the elements, giving Ray the ability to portray the West not as an existential state of being nor a representation of individualist freedom but as the only place left in the industrializing hemisphere big and untamed enough to contain the full range of passion.
A purported bisexual, Ray peppered his movies with gay allusions, most notably with Sal Mineo’s Plato in Rebel Without a Cause. But Johnny Guitar is a whole other beast: it’s a sordid melodrama played out against a sweeping backdrop, where the women behave like men and the men cow in their presence like obedient wives. Certainly aware of how wild and transgressive this film was, Ray messes with melodramatic convention: he introduces Vienna (Joan Crawford) without any swell of music or complicated aesthetic reveal. She simply appears at the top of the stairs of her saloon, decked out in a black shirt and pants with clashing green ribbon and deep-red lipstick. Her appearance is silent, but it might as well have been accompanied by a lightning strike and peal of thunder, so dynamic and convention-upturning is Crawford’s presence.
Her tacit, masculine strength instantly awes the men conversing about her down below. Speaking to the titular character who just rode into town at Vienna’s invitation, one of the locals meekly confides, “Never seen a woman who was more of a man. She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I’m not.” Crawford immediately establishes Vienna’s liberated, aggressive demeanor, her wide eyes bulging with a combination of of authority, power and a lust she knows she can satisfy at any moment.
That openness, that gender-bending, norm-smashing attitude, clashes with the normal order. The same townsfolk held captivated by her otherness also fear and loathe it, a pent-up masculine need to reassert dominance corralled by Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), who is desperate for a reason to kill her rival and enemy. Emma is everything Vienna isn’t: the product of inherited wealth instead of an earned living, plain and sexually repressed. The latter trait is the key to her character: she hates Vienna for being so free with her sexuality, then hates her doubly for engendering this jealousy. Compounding this rivalry is the Dancin’ Kid, a pathetic crook who’s spent more of his life making people think he was an outlaw than actually being one. The Kid stays with Vienna and sleeps with her despite her lack of affection for him, while Emma desires the Kid with passion that seeps from every pore on her face, again made more uptight by self-loathing for this weakness.
Between this sexual conflict comes Johnny Guitar, a recovering gunslinger who sees the movie named for him taken away in a flash by Vienna and never given back. But even as he introduces the character, Ray presents Johnny as primarily an observer: he rides past a railroad company dynamiting hilly terrain to make way for more tracks, and when he looks down into a verdant clearing, he sees a stagecoach being robbed, a crime Emma pins on the Kid to justify killing him to rid her of desire for him. The railroad also becomes a rallying point for Emma, who knows it will break up the cattle ranchers’ monopoly in the area and uses Vienna’s support for it to gather a lynch mob against her. In essence, Johnny serves mainly as an audience member, watching events unfold with passive, alternatingly bemused and amused attention. When the Kid too late decides to live up to his reputation by robbing a bank (while Vienna is in there), Johnny casually remarks to the gang, “looks like I got a front-row seat for the show.”
But Johnny also exists to coalesce the gender confusion of the movie into the film’s least exaggerated character. Sterling Hayden’s gravel-toned voice and rugged stoicism make him the most traditionally masculine character in the movie, yet proximity with Vienna unlocks all his old feelings of love and desire. In one memorable scene, his manly façade shatters when he all but begs Vienna to lie to him to assure the poor man she loves him as much as he does her. That scene, as much as his displays of gunslinging prowess, define him, and the complex portrait of a feminine and masculine man that emerges makes one of the most human characters in any Western. This is all the more impressive given what primal, erupting forces the rest of the characters play.
I kept forgetting throughout the film that Johnny Guitar was not in CinemaScope. With its painted skies and outlandish tone, it feels more like a ‘Scope film than Bigger Than Life, which I consider the pinnacle of the format. Yet Ray’s narrow aspect ratio serves the film, pushing the characters closer together, forcing their huge personalities together and placing the whole movie in a pressure cooker. Into this tightened frame goes incongruous and deliberately unincorporated set design, vivid costumes, and dramatic acting that could fill the space in a Cinerama triptych. It makes everything that much more tense and wild, and the repressed aspect ratio never seems more appropriate than when Emma burns down Vienna’s saloon, her face gnarled in one of the purest, most terrifying expressions of unearthed fury put to film, McCambridge’s devil rictus pulled so tight you expect her teeth to splinter from the force of her lockjawed grin. At last, she’s found an outlet for her sexual impotence, and as with a man, that outlet proves to be violence.
Ray keeps the focus on the characters, whose costume changes communicate emotional, even narrative, states1. Emma mourning the death of her brother from the stagecoach robbery, arrives at Vienna’s saloon after the Kid’s bank heist clad in funeral blacks along with her posse, and Vienna meets them in a long white dress as a show of her innocence. When she must flee the mob, Vienna changes into dark blue pants and a red shirt, the blue blending with the false studio night and the red disguising her when Ray communicates the literal and metaphorical fire around her with tinted lighting.
This uncorked sexual violence is wild enough, but Ray further undermines genre tropes with Johnny Guitar’s political content. Rather than praise the individualism of the Old West, Ray looks forward to modernization. Vienna wants the railroad to come through town to break up the power hold the ranchers have on the area, itself suggesting that the Old West had already been monopolized before corporations began to tame it. Then there’s the McCarthyism commentary: Emma sends a mob after the Kid and Vienna, extracting false confessions with threats and empty promises and bluntly attacking her targets until everyone else goes along with her witch-hunt. The Western is the most consistently conservative genre in cinema, but Ray got a head-start on the revisionist movies to come with this brazen attack on contemporary Republican ideals.
I cannot say definitively, but I cannot think of another Western in which the primary conflict, up to and including the final shootout, is between two women. Crawford’s performance is blinding, but she meets her match in McCambridge, who recalls Kathleen Byron’s similarly unhinged product of unleashed repression in that other masterpiece of color, Black Narcissus. Their conflict plays out in a lonely Arizona town, a place where “windswept” doesn’t even being to describe the unending maelstrom swirling around the place like a twister that refuses to leave until it has demolished everything. Ray viciously tears down gender lines even as he never resorts to simple inversion. Vienna lets out more femininity than masculine force when she points out a double standard to Johnny: “A man can lie, steal… and even kill. But as long as he hangs on to his pride, he’s still a man. All a woman has to do is slip – once. And she’s a ‘tramp!’ Must be a great comfort to you to be a man.” Johnny Guitar ends on a seemingly traditional note, with the man and woman embracing to forge a new life somewhere else in the West, but by that point Ray has undermined so many traditional meanings of the Western and of social relation that their Hollywood ending seems hollow and willfully ignorant of the implications of their actions and characteristics.
1 An effect also achieved through Ray’s abstract use of locations. Focus on the two main buildings of this film: Vienna’s saloon and the Kid’s hideout. The former is almost impossibly clean given the sandstorm that rages around it and the arid dust that continues to coat the area when the storm dies down. It’s a sign of Vienna’s modernity and desire to carve total control over her piece of land: the West is dirty and man-driven, but she’ll keep the finest saloon around, even if she’s already won that title by default. The hideout, on the other hand, is a transfiguring place, hidden behind a raging waterfall that becomes an important visual metaphor when Emma brings her posse there at the end to exact her final act of purging sexual violence. It’s a place that generates its own mythos, convincing the Kid to finally act upon his image, something that eventually leads to his downfall.