“Gun-Queen of the Arizona Frontier!” the original movie tag-line proclaims, “And her kind of men!!!”
We’ll ignore those exclamation marks for a moment and stick to the facts: Vienna has opened a saloon on the edge of a small town, right on the proposed line of the railway. Jealous local cattle-farmer Emma Small wants her gone. When her brother is killed, Emma falsely accuses Vienna and her friends – a group of honest-ish bandits and silver miners – in a bid to get rid of her and her saloon, once and for all.
Based on the book by Roy Chanslor (who also wrote The Ballad of Cat Ballou) Johnny Guitar is weird, subversive, camp as hell and utterly unforgettable. Here are my two cents...
Johnny Logan (played an occasionally smug Sterling Hayden, who you’ll know better as Captain McCluskey from The Godfather) is on the down low, so he chooses a nice, inconspicuous name. Like Johnny Guitar. But regardless of this eponymous status, the film's real hero is Crawford's Vienna: a no-nonsense, hard-nosed saloon boss with an eye for business. Dressed in a black shirt and trousers, gun belt around her waist, she strides out onto the landing to deliver one of her first lines to the disgruntled townsfolk below: “Down there I sell whiskey and cards. All you can buy up these stairs is a bullet in the head. Now which do you want?”
She’s tough, but thankfully that’s not her only attribute. As you might expect, she’s a woman with a past; namely as a saloon-girl and some-time prostitute. It’s something she expresses regret about, but never apologises for. She’s proud of what she’s accomplished, building her saloon from the ground up, Sweetwater style. What’s more, she’s a good boss: “I never thought I’d end up working for a woman,” one of the croupiers says, “let alone liking it”.
In fact, it’s Vienna’s old-flame Johnny who can’t seem to get over her past, or the fact that she’s managed perfectly well without him for five years, an attitude she is all too aware of. “A man can lie, steal... and even kill,” she tells him bitterly, “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.”
Her counterpart, and the film’s villain, is Emma Small, played by the wonderful Mercedes McCambridge. She hates Vienna with a passion, ostensibly for ruining the town with her gambling and drinking den, but also for bringing the threat of freedom with her. A pervasive theme of the Western genre, the relationship between human nature and liberty is often paradoxical and highly volatile, and Johnny Guitar is no exception. Emma Small is both terrified and deeply envious of the freedom that Vienna has claimed for herself, not least because she represents the movement of a woman into a traditionally male-dominated realm. Interestingly, it isn’t the men of the town who have a problem with this; if anything, they seem to quite admire Vienna.
Emma is a fascinating character in her own right. A powerful woman, a cattle farmer and the owner of the local bank, she’s an adversary to be reckoned with, and a refreshing foil in a world of macho sheriffs, land bosses and lawmen. But, McCambridge’s portrayal suggests, Emma's tragic flaw is that she has mistaken rigidity – be it social, emotional or moral – for strength.
In contrast, the male characters are surprisingly passive. Johnny Guitar is technically the catalyst for the film’s progression, but really he just shows up, throws around a few wise cracks, and is in the right place at the right time. The town’s authority figures, the Sheriff and the Marshall, only get involved at the prodding of Emma Small. Even when Emma has contrived to have Vienna strung up, sitting on a horse with a noose around her neck, neither of the lawmen has the stomach to go through with the actual hanging. “You’ll have to do it, Emma,” sighs the ever-cool Vienna.
Emotionally, the film has more in common with a stage play than a Western; its scope and use of environment is surprisingly narrow, more A Streetcar Named Desire than Once Upon a Time in the West. The slightly rough and ready sets, static scenes and heightened colours all add to the film's theatrical, fabular quality.
As you might have guessed by now, it’s not the most plausible of films. Where did those convenient explosives along the mountain pass come from? Who did rob that plot-device stagecoach? Best not to ask. Also best not to ask why Vienna has so many convenient changes of clean clothes or why she feels it necessary to tie her neckerchief just so whilst hiding out in a bandit cabin on the run from a vengeful mob.
There’s not really a plot as such either; it’s more an arena for the characters to thrash it out, which could be good or bad, depending on your taste. The denouement is a bit of a protracted affair, too. Luckily it’s worth waiting for, although SPOILER: I’d have preferred to see Vienna strut away into the sunset, attitude and neckerchief in place, rather than fall into a traditional closing-shot kiss.
By which I mean, things that were so bad they were good.
Melodrama. This film has it in spades. At one point an angry, noose wielding mob busts down the doors of the saloon to find Vienna, dressed head-to-toe in white like a Southern Belle, playing a mournful air on her piano. There are also some impressive, interpretive dance-style deaths from characters who get shot, and a few fascinating post-production voice overs. “FOLLOW ME!” one extra exclaims in a terrible accent without his mouth even moving: “AAAHVE PANNED EVERY INCH O’ THIS HUR RIVERR!”
But then, I kinda loved that shit.
All in all, this film is pretty ambiguous. It requires a hefty pinch of salt in places, a tongue in the cheek in others, whilst overall still managing to explore several challenging issues and powerful subtexts. It probably requires multiple viewings, or at least a few days of mulling afterwards.
But as the wise man behind the counter of my local video rental shop once told me: “Any film where someone sings the title on at least one occasion will be worth it”. As Johnny Guitar came to an end and Peggy Lee belted out: “the one they call Johnny Guitaaaaaar!” I couldn’t help thinking: how right you are, pard. How right you are.