Johnny Guitar


“You know, some men got the craving for gold and silver. Others need lots of 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.”

So says the eponymous hero of Johnny Guitar (1954) Nicholas Ray’s overwrought, subversive western. This is a simple philosophy, espoused by a deceptively simple man. And yet, the film itself is rich, complex and fascinating, both visually and thematically. Over the years, it’s come to be regarded as a cult item, a film so loaded with allegory and subtext that it positively demands analysis. For all that though, it’s a difficult film to try to analyse; there’s so much going on, both on and below the surface, that it’s hard to do it justice. I’ve toyed around with the idea of featuring this movie for a long time now and kept putting it off for one reason or another. However, after a recent viewing, I’ve decided to finally have a go at presenting my take on one of the most startling westerns to come out of the 50s, or any other decade for that matter.

The action opens with a bang, literally. Johnny Logan (Sterling Hayden) – although using the pseudonym Johnny Guitar – rides along the base of a hill which the railroad company are in the process of blasting away. As he tops a ridge, his attention is drawn by the sounds of more violent activity; down below, a stagecoach robbery is taking place. Johnny merely watches passively, turning his mount away and continuing on his journey. His destination is an isolated saloon and gambling house, standing alone in the Arizona wastelands. He arrives right in the middle of a ferocious dust storm, the desert winds whipping the red earth up into a furious maelstrom. As he bursts through the doors of the saloon, he finds himself in a curiously still and peaceful world. But this is a brooding, intense stillness, like that found at the eye of the storm. In truth, that’s where we are, right at the centre of a devastating and destructive emotional storm that’s about to sweep across the screen and lay waste to all in its path. This incongruous establishment is run by the equally unusual Vienna (Joan Crawford), a gun-toting woman in jeans and boots who, in the words of one of her employees, thinks like a man and acts like a man.

It’s clear enough that Johnny and Vienna have a history, and it’s later revealed that they were once lovers before he abandoned her. However, things have changed now that Vienna’s in trouble and in need of protection: she’s built her saloon in anticipation of the arrival of the railroad and the business it will bring in tow, but elements in the neighboring town are hell-bent on ensuring that won’t happen. Vienna’s chief rival is Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), a repressed and frustrated spinster, backed up by the blustering and bullying McIvers (Ward Bond). Superficially, this opposition is based on a desire to prevent the railroad moving in and the hordes of new settler it must surely bring. In reality though, there’s an entirely different desire driving Emma on; it’s a potent and unpleasant mix of jealousy and hatred, jealousy of Vienna and the passions she’s capable of stirring and hatred of her own emotional vulnerability. Radically, from the point of view of the classic western, it’s these two women who are the active protagonists at the heart of the drama. It’s the actions and reactions of Vienna and Emma which power the narrative and shape events. And ultimately, in a complete reversal of the conventions of the genre, it will all come down to a face-off between two determined and driven women.


Nicholas Ray made some pretty good films, but I reckon he was responsible for three great ones: In a Lonely Place, Bigger Than Life and Johnny Guitar. These movies are markedly different in terms of genre and theme, but they do all share an emotional intensity and feature obsessive lead characters. Johnny Guitar is the most self-consciously stylized, and therefore probably the most misunderstood, of the three. Ray wasn’t aiming for any kind of realism, rather he deliberately played up the heightened sense of unreality (what the critics usually refer to as the baroque aspects) to complement the fantastic nature of the story and characterization. With Harry Stradling operating the camera, Ray used the interiors, especially the main set of Vienna’s place where the back wall seems to be hewn from the living rock, to create an otherworldly feeling. A similar effect is achieved through the use of colour, particularly when it comes to the costumes. Vienna always appears in strong primary colours (scarlets, greens, yellows and whites) and contrasts sharply with the subdued tones of those around her. This is most notable in the case of Emma, who appears in all but one scene clad in funeral black, where the drabness of her dress emphasizes not only her pinched and cruel features but also marks her out as the visual antithesis of Vienna. The men in the film all appear in softer, less striking colours too, which serves to draw attention both to the softness of their character and to the subsidiary roles they play. Aside from the skewed representations of gender, Ray and writer Philip Yordan take a swipe at the McCarthyite politics of the time. The posse led by Emma gradually morphs into an implacable panel of self-appointed judges, contemptuous of the rule of law, using betrayal and deceit as a means to punish guilty and innocent alike. The masterstroke here was the ironic casting of Ward Bond (a prime mover in the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals) as Emma’s chief ally.

This leads me to the casting in general, an area where I can’t honestly find any fault. Joan Crawford is hardly a figure one would normally associate with the western, and Johnny Guitar represents one of her few forays into the genre. Crawford’s career can be roughly divided into three phases: her siren/starlet years up to the end of the 30s, her reinvention of herself as a noir/melodrama heroine in the 40s, and finally as a fixture of schlock horror pictures in the 60s. This movie came towards the end of her second phase, and it forms a kind of bridge between the tough post-Mildred Pierce roles and the gallery of grotesques still to come. While the western environment may seem an odd place to find Crawford, the feeling of otherness she brings is entirely appropriate in context. In addition, the years had hardened her looks and seen them take on that almost masculine aspect that fits the role of Vienna; I can’t think of another actress of the period who could have been plausibly been cast in the part. As Emma, Mercedes McCambridge was another ideal choice. She possessed the shrillness of voice and sharpness of features to perfectly embody a woman barely in control of the raging and conflicting emotions boiling away within her. I think it’s fair to say that no other actress has thus far managed to quite nail the corrosive, consumptive effects of twisted and repressed sexuality to such terrifying effect.


Sterling Hayden in the title role, as the only man who displays anything approaching strength or dignity, made good use of both his physical presence and craggy face to impose himself upon all those around him. However, there’s more than just muscle and machismo to his playing; the scene where he and Crawford mull over their past reveals a sensitivity and shows him to be a fully rounded character, perhaps the only one in the film. Scott Brady as The Dancing Kid was the figure at the heart of Vienna and Emma’s rivalry, an essentially feminine role, and he gets across the kind of inherent weakness demanded. His cocksure confidence is basically a front to mask his essential impotence – he’s no match for Hayden’s easy assurance when the chips are down. Among Brady’s sidekicks, Ernest Borgnine remains the most memorable. His performance as the untrustworthy blowhard can be viewed as something of a dry run for a similar part in Bad Day at Black Rock.

To date the best DVD release of Johnny Guitar is the version available throughout continental Europe via Paramount. I have the French DVD and it’s a very pleasing transfer, a vast improvement on the UK release by Universal. There’s no noticeable damage to the print, sharpness is acceptable and, crucially for such a film, the colour is well rendered. Subtitles are not a problem, a range of languages are available and can be disabled on the original soundtrack via the setup screen. There are no extra features at all offered. The title will shortly be made available in the US by Olive Films on both DVD and Blu-ray, as a result of that company licensing the Republic catalogue, and I would imagine the same print will be used as a source. If so, it should look pretty good in high definition. Johnny Guitar is one of those movies that viewers are likely to either love or loathe; it’s too heady a cocktail to elicit a lukewarm response. I count myself among the former, and it’s a film I never tire of revisiting. This article I’ve written really only scratches the surface of what’s on offer and tries to give a flavour of this very rich concoction – I haven’t even gone into the resemblances the plot bears to Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, or the matter of the expansion of the railroad and the clash between progress and tradition. Like all the best pieces of cinema, Johnny Guitar reveals new things on each viewing. I’d say it’s a must for any serious western fan.



40 thoughts on “Johnny Guitar

  1. The famous quote associated with this film comes from the famed French director, Francois Truffaut (paraphrasing):

    … it reminded him of ‘The Beauty and the Beast,’ with Sterling Hayden being the beauty.

    This has to be one of the most psycho-sexual westerns there is, and you given it an equally excellent examination, Colin. It certainly reminds me of that same love/hate undertone with Wyler’s ‘Ben-Hur’ centered on Massala and the hero, only with the tough as come female leads of Joan and Mercedes. This one is such an entertaining and rousing hoot (in the good sense). I saw this first time as a kid on TV, and even then I got a sense of this tension (and I hadn’t even hit puberty yet). Well done, my friend. Thanks for this.


    • Very kind Michael. It is an extraordinarily deviant piece of work for the era. There are all kinds of undercurrents running through the film, something Ray was fantastic at marshalling when he was on top form.
      And thanks for adding that Truffaut quotation/paraphrase – it’s very fitting.


  2. “Overwrought “is an understatement. When I was young I thought this was very interesting movie. I tried to watch it again a few months ago and just rolled my eyes. I think a person really needs to be in the mood to see this. So I’ll try again when I need a Sterling Hayden fix. Or an “over the top” Joan Crawford fix.


    • Hi Muriel. Yes, I guess you do need to approach this one in the right mood, or at least with the right expectations. As I said at the end of the article, it’s a real “love-or-loathe” movie – I don’t think it allows you much room for any middle ground.


  3. Interesting review. Not seen this one, though I was impressed by another Hayden western, TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN, and posted on it. I thought it was a subtle dig at the whole Communist fofra going on at the time. Hayden, you know, briefly cooperated with the House Unamerican Activities bunch.

    BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK is another I liked and covered.

    I need to get Johnny Guitar I think.


    • You should certainly give this a go Randy. There were lots of fascinating films that came out of this period, many of which were given an unusual spin at least partly as a result of the divisive political climate.
      If you enjoyed Terror in a Texas Town (which I looked at myself earlier in the year), and Bad Day at Black Rock then the points this film has to make may be of interest.

      Yes, I was aware of Hayden’s involvement with HUAC, something which I understand troubled him a lot later on and left him with a sour taste.


    • Thanks. It’s certainly not what you could term a typical western Vinnie. It approaches the genre from a different angle, and that may be an issue for some. However, I prefer to see it as yet another demonstration of the flexibility of the western, and its ability to encompass such a breadth of themes.


  4. That’s a really thoughtful piece Colin and very helpful given the baggage that has come with it through the decades. Often it simply gets classed as a role-reversal Western, suggesting something far campier and extreme that the movie really warrants, so it’s great to read such a well-reasoned look at the film. Personally, I would probably add They Live by Night and On Dangerous Ground as two further Ray classics, though the latter did suffer from some Hughes-era post-production tampering.


    • Cheers Sergio. Over the years Johnny Guitar has indeed been lumbered with the tag of a “cult camp classic”, which detracts from its quality somewhat. Personally, I think that amounts to lazy writing by certain critics and/or an unwillingness to delve deeper.

      I take your point about They Live by Night and On Dangerous Ground (the latter especially), but I’d rank them just a tad lower – however, there’s not much in it to be honest. Have you ever seen Party Girl? That’s another Ray movie that plays around with genre expectations.


  5. Very thoughtful, insightful review, Colin! Like Michael, I caught this film long ago when I was too young to get it on more than a surface level, but still realized some potent, weird stuff was going on. I haven’t caught up with it since but will do so at the nearest opportunity, as it sounds a really fascinating genre exercise at the very least. And what a great supporting cast! I definitely think Truffaut was right, at least regarding Crawford as the “beast.” Whatever you think of her, she is a force of nature on screen.


    • Thanks Jeff. The BD ought to look nice when it comes out in the States.
      There is a great supporting cast, and I hadn’t even gotten round to mentioning the likes of Royal Dano, John Carradine and Denver Pyle.

      Crawford is an odd one, isn’t she? I’ve never found her the least bit attractive, yet her presence on the screen is undeniable. And, as I mentioned, I couldn’t imagine anyone else pulling off the role of Vienna so well.


  6. An interesting and comprehensive first review of the film, Colin – a good read. You mention that male employee that describes Vienna…it is interesting in that description how the saloon worker admits his confusion toward his own sense of manhood as a result of her presence. It is some provocative writing when the employee says, “Never seen a woman who was more a man, she thinks like one, acts like one and sometimes makes me feel like I’m not.”

    How that actor is set up to deliver those lines is also interesting. At first, he seems to be addressing the camera directly (and thus the audience) with his thoughts on Vienna. He concludes his speech and the audience sees that the employee is looking into the kitchen to address Johnny Guitar and another staff member. The audience is thus informed that superficially he was speaking to those two but director Nicholas Ray, in my view, is sharing an assessment of Vienna on two levels: between the characters of the film itself and with the viewer outside of the film.

    Thanks again for the review.



    • Hi Chad. Yes, I know what you mean. For a moment, it does appear to be a breaking of the fourth wall, and really grabs the attention. Generally though, it’s a technique I’m not crazy about; if you must address the audience directly then I think something like a voiceover blends in more seamlessly.


  7. You’re getting better and better at this, Colin! Another excellent post.
    I’m so glad you gave Mercedes McCambridge the attention she deserves. To me, she’s a crucial part of the picture. (That’s a great image of her, too!) Her hysteria really drives the last reel.
    And you’re right that the film reveals something new each and every time you watch it. Sometimes you just sit and marvel at how silly it all is — which in no way takes away from its greatness.
    There are lots of movies where “one of a kind” is used — this one truly deserves it.


    • Hey, thanks for that Toby!
      McCambridge is integral to the story, without her rage and near demonic frustration all the sting is drawn from the picture. Crawford may be the star, but she’s still only the ying to McCambridge’s yang – the two characters are interdependent within the plot.


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    • Paul, some things are worth the wait. Here in Europe, we’ve been fortunate that the film has been available on disc, and in good nick, for a while now.


  9. Since you’ve seen all the various European DVDs, you’re probably the best to answer this question: do they all have the titles over a blue background or over Arizona scenery? The original had scenery, but many (if not all) newer editions have the blue. Thanks!


    • You know, I was looking over your post on this matter last night, and avoided replying since I wanted to check something, namely if I still had my old UK DVD. Well, I can’t find the UK disc, I reckon I must have sold it.
      Anyway , trusting to memory, I’m almost sure the old UK Optimum Universal release (featuring the Scorsese intro, by the way) had the titles on the blue background. Now that transfer was pretty poor, and not what I’d think of as a restoration.
      The superior French Paramount edition I currently have (and I believe all the other Euro Paramount discs are the same) features the titles over the Arizona backdrop.
      Seeing as Olive have licensed movie direct from Paramount’s Republic catalogue it seems a safe bet that the US will be getting a Hi-Def version of the transfer issued in Europe by Paramount themselves.


  10. I have this DVD, thanks for this great review. Yes, this is definitely very weird western and have a lot of misunderstood, as you mention. But still, Johnny Guitar will be among ten best western of all time.


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  12. Great review, Colin – it’s a little while now since I saw this film, but I do remember in particular enjoying Joan Crawford’s performance and all the role reversal. I also especially enjoyed reading this today after the death of Ernest Borgnine.


    • Hi Judy, thanks for stopping by. There’s lots to enjoy in this one, a very subversive film on so many levels.

      I just realized today that I’ve featured quite a few films with Ernest Borgnine over the last few months. He seemed to pop up everywhere, didn’t he? And I don’t believe I ever saw him give a poor performance however big or small the role. His passing is a real loss, another link with cinema’s golden age broken.


  13. I love JOHNNY GUITAR (hence my name!) but get a bit fed up by all the fancy critical remarks made about it, just because it was unusual to have two females leading the action. Great direction by Ray and who can forget that fabulous red rock saloon . Great cast – Ben Cooper and John Carradine. Royal Dano ,always ready to follow Scott Brady’s lead ( Dano was also good in SADDLE THE WIND.)
    And that haunting theme song by Peggy Lee.
    Thanks for your great review


  14. I just watched this movie for the first time tonight. I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to it, maybe because the way it’s always described as a “camp classic,” as was mentioned earlier. I like my westerns straightforward, and for the life of me I can’t see how anybody ever considered this movie campy. Clearly I need to rewatch it a time or twelve, but frankly on first viewing I took it straight as a western and LOVED IT. I guess I caught some of that McCarthy subtext (and one does wonder if Mercedes Mccambridge loved Scott Brady and wanted to kill her rival Joan Crawford, or loved Joan Crawford and wanted to kill her rival Scott Brady, or both), but frankly I think the movie plays just fine as a straight-ahead, good old-fashioned western….that just happens to have, as its principle hero and villain, women. I loved the scenery, the dialogue, the acting, the colors, the direction, everything. This will definitely go on my list of favorites.

    Oh, and by the way….come on, Colin, do you really not consider “Rebel Without a Cause” one of Nicholas Ray’s great movies? Maybe I’m just too hung-up on the 1950s, but I think it’s one of the all-time greats, hands down. Melodrama just doesn’t GET any better than James Dean’s torturous banshee wail, “You’re tearing me APART!!!!!!”


    • I think there’s lots in this film for everyone, and it’s able to be approached and appreciated on different levels. Yes, it works fine as a standard western but the more you see it, the more the odd little quirks and touches jump out at you – and that’s no bad thing.

      I haven’t watched Rebel Without a Cause for many years now. I first saw it when I was around 17 years old and it had a great impact on me – it made me think my smoking habit and hairstyle were kind of cool at the very least 🙂 – so I really should give it a look again soon.


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  16. I tried 20-25 years ago to watch this and quit half way through. It just did not light any fires for me. 20 years later I just might now give it another look. Thanks for the review.


    • Fair enough, I think this is another film, a bit like Rancho Notorious, that you either like or dislike with few people occupying any kind of middle ground.


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