I was first introduced to Johnny Guitar the way I assume a lot of people my age were: patrolling the Mojave Wasteland in Obsidian Entertainment’s modern roleplaying classic, Fallout: New Vegas. It’s one of my all-time favorite games, but considering its length (not to mention its replayability) and the fact that the soundtrack is fairly limited, you end up hearing the same songs over and over again. One of those is Peggy Lee’s “Johnny Guitar”, a song written specifically for the film. I can still vividly hear AI radio host Mr. New Vegas queuing up the song:
Got a song for you right now that’s about a man that’s cold on the exterior, but deep down you know he’s a good man, and his name is Johnny Guitar.
I don’t really have the vocabulary to accurately assess music, but suffice to say it’s a beautiful ballad, with Lee’s sultry vocals and Victor Young’s measured composition masterfully evoking a sense of long-lost love. It has a sparseness that feels perfectly suited to the barren frontier of the western genre, while retaining a pained romantic undercurrent reminiscent of a Douglas Sirk movie. Which is to say, the song is a microcosm of its namesake: a western dressed up as a melodrama, and a melodrama dressed up as a western.
Initially derided by critics, except in France where François Truffaut lavished it with praise and referred to it as “the Beauty and the Beast of westerns”, Johnny Guitar is a complex film that has invited many readings and reassessments over the years, chock full of gender dynamics, McCarthy era politics, repressed sexuality, and a healthy dose of camp. Though it’s not exactly part of the revisionist western canon that would begin to form in the decade following its release, it features many of the same antithetical trappings. Its distinct style might prove off-putting to some, but for my money it’s one of the genre’s very best.
The plot begins with Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) witnessing a stagecoach holdup on his way to an outskirts saloon run by the iron-fisted Vienna (Joan Crawford). Once there we are introduced to former city slicker The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) and his gang: the standard tough guy Bart (Ernest Borgnine), the loyal and sickly Corey (Royal Dano), and the boyish Turkey (Ben Cooper). Then an angry mob barges in, led by the fiery Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), whose brother died in the holdup. She accuses The Kid and his gang of committing the crime and demands they hang alongside Vienna, whom she believes is in cahoots with them. Though there’s no proof, the townsfolk already hold a grudge against Vienna because her saloon is poised to make a great deal of money when an incoming railroad is built; town leader John McIvers (Ward Bond) compromises and gives them twenty-four hours to leave.
With so many people involved, it should come as no surprise that newcomer Johnny is sort of a periphery player—don’t let the title fool you, Johnny is by no means the protagonist. Played with laidback machismo, Hayden delivers the film’s rich, sometimes over-the-top dialogue with a palpable sense of coolness. It helps that he has a deep voice, and of course at 6’5” he towers above the rest of the cast, so even though he’s essentially just along for the ride, when he does speak his magnetism does wonders. He and Crawford are responsible for one my all-time favorite scenes, which I’ll get into later.
It’s no secret that westerns are typically a boy’s club. From noble cowboys to wicked outlaws, town drunks, shopkeepers, card dealers, what have you—women are almost always left out. And when they do show up, it’s either as a prostitute or as a standard wife/mother character who exists solely in service of her husband. There are certainly examples of more fleshed out characters who deviate from the norm (Katy Jurado in High Noon comes to mind), but even then they’re still sidelined and usually not integral to the main plot. That was never going to be the case with Johnny Guitar however, considering it was made as a starring-vehicle for Crawford from the jump (she held the rights to the book), but her real-life animosity for McCambridge led to rewrites that made Vienna even more prominent, including her demand that she have the climactic shootout, not Johnny.
In Crawford’s hands, Vienna is a domineering force, a former prostitute turned entrepreneur who backs down to no one. She wears pants and a six-shooter, which lends her a sense of masculinity, but a variety of colorful scarves and tops, including her iconic red-scarf/yellow-shirt combo, add a touch of femininity (remember this is the old west, where pretty much everyone wore shades of black and brown). She takes delight in her power, barking orders and flirting freely, but she isn’t a bad person. She possesses a great deal of loyalty and treats her employees well. All she wants to do is bide her time till the railroad comes. Her card dealer, Sam (Robert Osterloh), sums her up thusly: “Never seen a woman who was more of a man. She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I’m not.”
And in McCambridge’s hands, Emma becomes one of the best antagonists in a genre full of them. Her hatred for Vienna bleeds out of every word she says, as she grits her teeth, refutes logic at every step, and visibly shakes with murderous intent; no doubt her feud with Crawford aided her performance. I believe the shot of her running out of the saloon, after she’s callously set the place on fire (pictured above), is one of cinema’s finest moments. Vienna and The Dancin’ Kid have a shared romantic past, which Vienna claims is the true reason she doesn’t care for her (Emma seemingly has a crush on him, but won’t allow herself to admit it), but if you read between the lines, it’s clear Emma’s interests lie in Vienna, not The Kid. This adds a layer of tragedy to the role, a woman so hellbent on defying her attraction to the same sex that she won’t stop until everyone involved hangs.
In fact, same sex attraction is kind of rampant throughout the film, if not the whole genre. Obviously male bonding doesn’t automatically equate to homosexuality, but most westerns are about dudes shacking up together in some way or another, either on the road or in the thick of battle. When The Kid first sizes up Johnny, he places his hands on his belt buckle and looks him up and down like a piece of meat. And of course there’s the gun-as-phallus metaphor that everyone knows about. Elsewhere, a character says of Johnny: “That’s a lot of man you’re carrying in those boots, stranger! You know, there’s something about a tall man that makes people sit up and take notice.” I mean, if that quote doesn’t stand on its own, what does? No explanation needed.
Which leads to my next point—the script is phenomenal. There are so many good lines, really too many to list, but a few of my favorites:
Johnny: There’s nothin’ like a good smoke and a cuppa’ coffee. You know, some men got the craving for gold and silver. Others need lotsa’ land, with herds of cattle. And then there’s those that got the weakness for whiskey, and for women. When you boil it all down, what does a man really need? Just a smoke and a cup of coffee.
Dancin’ Kid: I like you, Guitar Man. How’d you like to work for me?
Johnny: I wouldn’t.
Dancin’ Kid: Now all of a sudden I don’t like you.
Johnny: Now that makes me real sad.
Dancin’ Kid: How’d Turkey take it? Hard?
Johnny: You ever know anyone to take a hangin’ easy?
Anyway, I could go on and on, but far and away my favorite bit of dialogue is the famous “Lie to me” scene featured above. This is the moment where the melodramatic nature of the film is fully actualized, with Hayden and Crawford’s words playfully bouncing off each other, while the music swells and heartstrings are pulled. It’s heightened acting at its finest, favoring a realm of romance over reality; in other words, it’s pure cinema. That it takes place in Vienna’s saloon, an entirely manufactured setting that doesn’t really make sense at all—the place is built against a mountain, with the back wall being made of red rock—only amplifies the otherworldly nature of the scene (and the film as a whole). Director Nicholas Ray wasn’t concerned with logic, he was concerned with feeling.
And what feeling is best evoked by the film’s lynching scene? Fear. Hysteria. Disgust. Take your pick, they all apply. After being given the option to incriminate Vienna for something she didn’t do in exchange for his own life, Turkey fearfully pleads to her: “What should I do? I don’t want to die. What do I do?” “Save yourself,” she answers. So Turkey gives in, offering the mob a version of reality that better serves their bloodlust. What does he get for it? A noose just the same, a fitting allegory for the era of Hollywood blacklisting and McCarthyism fearmongering.
By now, it should be clear that I absolutely adore this movie. The sumptuous Trucolor visuals allow the vibrant set and costume design to really pop—I promise you, the sky has never looked bluer—and a wealth of interesting characters, exquisite dialogue, an iconic theme, and a strangeness that feels wholly unique all combine to create a masterpiece of genre-bending filmmaking. In a way, I fell in love with the film before I even laid eyes on it, and I’m happy to say that 8 years later my love burns as bright as ever. Like a nourishing dish of comfort food, Johnny Guitar warms the soul and scratches my cineaste itch like few others. I could—and will—watch it till the end of time.