Director: Nicholas Ray
Writer: Ben Maddow
DP: Harry Stradling Jr.
Editor: Richard L. van Enger
Score: Peggy Lee, Victor Young
Producer: Herbert J. Yates
Starring: Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, Scott Brady
Distribution: Republic Pictures
Length: 1 hr. 51 min.
An explosion occurs within the first 10 seconds of Johnny Guitar. It's a good opening for an explosive film, an opening that anticipates the campy melodrama, blazing colors, and fervid performances. If Johnny Guitar plays out in a heightened, romantic mode, it's because (like some of Nicholas Ray's other films) it operates on the powerful currents of emotion in a world out of joint. We feel the strain of marginalization, of lies told because the truth is too painful, and the looming threat of vicious group zealotry.
It has a simple premise: Johnny Guitar is a wandering guitar player hired by a woman named Vienna. She runs a saloon out in the desert, some distance away from a frontier town, intending to build a town of her own when the railroad comes in. A rich man named McIvers and a woman named Emma Small, who runs the town bank, incite the townspeople against her; Vienna's done nothing wrong, but they're loath to let her act beyond their control.
With their unfair, unfounded accusations against Vienna, it comes as no surprise that the film has been identified as anti-McCarthyist. The film pairs their fear-mongering tactics with the failure of the law: the town marshal proves to be an ineffectual heel who usually ends up capitulating to McIvers and Emma's demands, even though he does offer some weak protest to their abuses.
The mob mentality Emma encourages is one of a couple elements of the film's drama that works well with its hammy performances. The other would be its treatment of female sexuality and how people react to it: it's never made explicit why Emma hates Vienna so much, or why it's so easy for her to call up moral outrage against her, but it's not hard to guess when she repeatedly labels Vienna a "tramp" while insisting on her own purity. Even more obvious are the hints that Vienna used her sexuality to gain the financial success she needed to start her saloon. The film takes her side: Vienna's in control of her own sexuality because she doesn't deny it, and she righteously rebukes anyone who attacks her for it. The film's costuming plays a role here as well, with Vienna wearing a billowy white dress when she sarcastically capitulates to the townspeople's demands, then changes back to her normal, more conventionally masculine outfit after escaping their wrath.
This is all to say that the film runs on irresistible, irrational emotions. Johnny Guitar works not with deliberation, but with social forces and human instinct. This is, after all, why so many characters in Ray's films are alienated: sometimes groups and individuals are incompatible because of fundamental human imperfections.
And yet, tragically as that may turn out, these films find beauty in it. Witness the makeshift home created by the central couple of They Live by Night, the slapdash family of Rebel Without a Cause, the struggle to ignore the violence of the main character of In a Lonely Place, or indeed, the fantasies shared between Johnny and Vienna in Johnny Guitar. These are lies, but they're attractive lies, and they're shared not for the purpose of burying the truth, but for the purpose of tuning it out for a while.
So why shouldn't Johnny Guitar be an adrenalized, over-the-top piece of genre fare? It's a lie that elevates reality, an entertainment that doesn't want to be anything else and doesn't intend to trick anyone into thinking it's anything else. It comes alive not in realism, but in its arresting and inventive visuals, and the intelligence in its editing. That's all it needs to engender sympathy for the unjustly accused and ostracized, and to carry the political weight that comes with that.