Johnny Guitar is very different from the realism that dominates the work of classical Western directors such as John Ford and Howard Hawks, and this expressive boldness can be looked at as a form of allegory. In particular, many critics have pointed out that the film is a hidden commentary on the McCarthy witch-hunts. The film is certainly more than just a Western — Truffaut called it "a phony Western". It is a sexual drama with obsessive personalities bordering on madness: the character played by Mercedes McCambridge is obviously the chief villain, but Joan Crawford's character is not entirely likable, scowling through much of the movie. Ray shows that Crawford's own psycho-sexual obsession affects her in equally bizarre turns; for example, she dresses entirely in white in a crucial scene where she must confront McCambridge (who dresses in black for most of the film).
Some insights on Johnny Guitar from the blogosphere:
...Ray’s work is highly regarded by film buffs, and rightfully so. The 1954 western Johnny Guitar is a minor classic, not really a western at all but a bizarre psychological study laced with insightful social commentary.
The plot has Joan Crawford maintaining a powerful hold on a boomtown where the railroad promises to bring even more boom. Crawford operates a casino on the outskirts of town and she’s buying more and more property, poised to become the West’s ultimate dominatrix. She’s also suspected of having led the robbery of a stagecoach, a crime that claimed the brother of Mercedes McCambridge who despises Crawford and wants to run her out of town. The reversal of gender roles is the most interesting aspect of this movie, the first western in which two women wear the pants and dominate the proceedings. The tension between these two is considerable, and it’s no wonder. Crawford, apparently resentful that there was another woman in the cast, allegedly did one of her Mommie Dearest numbers on her co-star, making life hell for the poor actress throughout the shoot.
The women’s strength is enhanced by the casting of two comparatively weak actors in the leading male roles. MORE »
Johnny Guitar has it all. There’s repressed Freudian urges: Emma (Mercedes MacCambridge) loves the Dancing Kid (Scott Brady) but her longing scares her righteous religious side -- so she considers killing him. There’s also gender-confusion, as a strong-willed woman (Vienna played with hard brittle by Joan Crawford) runs a saloon. Crawford, often shot in low-angle compositions with shoulders thrown back, exudes masculine confidence. Decked in a black shirt, pants, and boots, she totes a gun while smirking out of the left side of her mouth. Even Sam (Robert Osterloch), her croupier, in an apparent narrative aside quips, "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." MORE »
Johnny Guitar was adapted into a stage musical, which debuted in 2004. The musical adaptation favored a more "camp" approach toward the material, which seemed to work in its favor, at least among the critics.
Johnny Guitar Musical official website »
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