Johnny Guitar (1954)

Genres - Western  |   Sub-Genres - Psychological Western, Revisionist Western  |   Run Time - 110 min.  |   Countries - United States  |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Mark Deming

Few Westerns more obviously begged the question "What was the studio thinking?" than Nicholas Ray's brilliantly perverse Johnny Guitar. Ray had a knack for finding subversive subtexts in standard material, and on the surface Johnny Guitar's outlaws on the run, factions battling over a town's future, and love and betrayal among the tumbleweeds seem like the stuff of a typical Western. But in Johnny Guitar, nearly all the men are unwilling or afraid to fight, the action is dominated by two aggressive women who hate each other (but are also oddly drawn to each other), the title character is at once the lover and the employee of the female lead, and her arch-rival is driven to near-psychotic hatred and violence by unrequited affection for a handsome outlaw. Lust rules nearly everyone in this film, and in ways that generally fall outside the boundaries of mainstream Hollywood's sexual economy; one look at Joan Crawford's butch Western outfit, complete with string tie, should be enough to signal that this isn't an ordinary sagebrush shoot-'em-up. Ray plays this saga of unusual appetites in a hyper-emotional style against a broad and colorful backdrop, and the result feels more like an opera than a Western, as Martin Scorsese has pointed out. Throw in an allegory of 1950s anti-Communist blacklisting, the bold visual style, Victor Young's moody score, and the con brio performances of Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge, and Sterling Hayden and you have a unique movie that's fascinating and entertaining throughout.