JOHNNY GUITAR directed by Nicholas Ray (USA, 1954)

Nicholas Ray

Dismissed by critics at the time of its release, this low-budget feature has since come to be regarded as one of the greatest westerns of all time.

Certainly, it is one of the most original and radical in terms of re-appraising the genre.

Ray turns expectations of a male-driven plot on their head by having women as the two main rivals and the participants in the final shoot-out.

Sterling Hayden as Johnny Guitar is the first character we see and ,as this is the title role, you would expect him to be the movie’s heroic protagonist.

But doubts that he has the necessary credentials emerge immediately when we learn that he has renounced his gun slinging past (as Johnny Logan) and now carries a guitar rather than a weapon.

It is his employer and, we soon learn, ex-lover Vienna who dominates the action, Joan Crawford is perfectly cast in this part as a formidable saloon owner on the outskirts of Albuquerque, a barren outback soon to be transformed by the arrival of a railroad.

A motley four man gang arrive on the scene led by The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady); not an alias designed to strike fear into the heart of his enemies. It turns out that this dancing fool is another old flame of Vienna’s, something that patently incurs the wrath of Emma (Mercedes McCambridge).

Vienna (Joan Crawford) and Johnny Guitar (Sterling ) share a tense moment.

Vienna (Joan Crawford) and Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) share a tense moment.

Driven by jealousy, Emma talks a group of weak-willed bankers and lawmakers into forcing Vienna to close her business on the pretext that the saloon is a haven for criminals.

Martin Scorsese says that, in America particularly, this movie confused, and even angered, audiences who felt Ray had stripped the genre of its essential macho orientated ingredients.

The main actors did not leap to Ray’s defence either. Hayden hated his part and Crawford said “there’s no excuse for a picture being this bad”.

It made a more immediate impact in Europe, particularly in France. Francois Truffaut recognised that it was a “phony western” but praised the boldness of Ray’s vision saying that anyone who rejected it “should never go to see movies again”.

Viewed now, it’s a film that was clearly ahead of its time particularly in giving the women such prominent and affirmative roles.

Normally their function is merely to satisfy the lust or justify the toughness of their male counterparts. Here, the men are not redundant but are made to look ineffectual; placed as they are in relatively passive roles as observers and procrastinators.

An example of this is when Turkey, a rookie in the Dancin’ Kid’s gang, offers to be Vienna’s protector. He tries to impress her by a demonstration of sharp shooting. Vienna makes it plain that she is perfectly capable of looking after herself and delivers a classic put down: “Boys who play with guns have to be ready to die like men”.

By the end,  Vienna and Johnny are free to ride off into the sunset but we are left in no doubt who calls the shots in this relationship.