Sunday, September 5, 2010

Johnny Guitar

Johnny Guitar, 1954
Dir: Nicholas Ray

This is not your typical Western, but then again it really isn't a Western. In Truffaut's original review of the film in 1954 he called it a "phony Western." Ray understands the gestures and symbols that define the genre but he uses them to turn it on its head. At the same time, he also used the film to denounce the blacklisting that was taking place in Hollywood, which took huge balls, but Ray always had those in spades.

A stranger (Sterling Hayden) rides into an Arizona town after witnessing a carriage heist and makes for Vienna's, a saloon owned by woman of the same name (Joan Crawford). We soon found out that she sent for him to play guitar (hence, "Johnny Guitar") in the saloon, and that they have a bit of history. However, the people of the town, mostly cattle ranchers, are furious over her "trampishness" and the fact that Vienna made a deal with the railroad to bring more people in. This enrages the ranchers because they feel it will bring in farmers who will run them out of town. To make things worse, a local gang, led by The Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady), often frequent Vienna's and are often suspected of any local trouble. The carriage heist, which resulted in the death of the brother of one of the key antagonistic ranchers, Emma Small(Mercedes McCambridge), along with Johnny's arrival in town, kicks of a series of events that will lead to a unavoidable showdown between the two groups and to which Johnny is witness to all.

So you've got the ranchers, led by Emma, who are unmovable in their position and are willing to lay the blame on the Kid's gang just to get to Vienna. McCambridge's performance was probably meant to mimic McCarthy, and in doing that she did a good job for a character that lacks any real depth beyond her strange attraction to The Kid, which enrages her even more. All of the performances are a little over the top, except maybe Hayden who does a great "stranger in town," observer role (probably meant to be Ray himself). The ranchers hatred turns into a posse mentality, and the allegory is complete.

Ray's use of color is just as impressive here (using TruColor) as it will be in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). While most critics say that it's expressionistic, I'd almost say that it's impressionistic, though it's probably just because it's color. From the gang's (including Vienna) colorful garments to the the drab and dark cattle ranchers, it's pretty obvious what Ray was trying to do. I don't know overall though, there is something about Ray that I like, but he's just so full of melodrama and over-the-top theatrics that he uses to demonstrate his points that I doubt any of his films would ever end up on one of my "favorite films" lists.

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