Johnny Guitar was a shocking disappointment to me. I really love what I have seen of Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden, so having the two of them as the leads made this one seem like a slam dunk. Toss them in a western with Nicholas Ray at the helm and oh boy do we have a winner. Yet, JohnnyJohnny Guitar was a shocking disappointment to me. I really love what I have seen of Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden, so having the two of them as the leads made this one seem like a slam dunk. Toss them in a western with Nicholas Ray at the helm and oh boy do we have a winner. Yet, Johnny Guitar did not really work for me. It is undeniably well-directed with great acting from Crawford and Hayden, as well as a whip smart script that features that witty dialogue that I have come to love in older films. Its plot may not innovate and is certainly cliched, but it is damn entertaining with terrific shootouts, particularly the few that come at the climax of the film that are terrifically staged and make great use of the set design. On that note, the set design is also very good and the costumes match the style perfectly. So, what went wrong?
In far too many reviews, I have explained my absolute hatred of plots that include a framing. For some reason, it absolutely ticks me off. Here, Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) frames Vienna (Joan Crawford) as being a member of The Dancin' Kid's (Scott Brady) gang and being complicit in his robbery of Emma's bank. Coercing witnesses, threatening them with death, and running right over the marshal and mayor, in exacting her revenge, the film's plot is entirely grating in these moments. Its western cliches are charming, this frame job done out of animosity towards another person is a cliche that drives me up the wall and sucks the life out of a film. Though I tried to power through this and not let it ruin my enjoyment of a classic, it is impossible. With Emma spitting more and more vitriol at Vienna just because she is jealous of her and hates what she took away from her is beyond aggravating and not an enjoyable viewing experience. Perhaps it adds tension and shows how easily justice is perverted by passion and rage, but it is a common trope in film that makes my blood boil. While this has earned the film praise as a depiction of McCarthyism, I still really detested this element of the film.
While the film's status as a female-led western is quite unique and worthy of praise, especially considering how naturally Crawford slides into the role as a rough and tumble saloon owner, Johnny Guitar mostly uses it as a gimmick. Baby steps towards promoting female leads in masculine films aside, the film never lets the women really breathe. Not only is the film named Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), but the central conflict between Emma and Vienna stems from Emma's jealousy and anger that Vienna took The Dancin' Kid away from her, who was the only man to "make her feel like a woman". This depiction of two women who fight over a man, along with Vienna being thrust into a relationship with Johnny who helps her throughout, the film is hardly some feminist romp as its premise and setup may suggest. Vienna is a tough woman, yes, but not tough enough to walk on rocks without falling or without needing to be subjected to the male gaze as she changes clothes.
That said, its approach to western cliches is bolstered by great acting, but is nonetheless entirely cliche. Beat-for-beat, the film's plot and storyline follows many other westerns with somebody anticipating a railroad arriving so they start building a town. Armed with a dream, everybody and their mother come to try and steal it from them, so they hire a gunfighter to help protect their holdings. However, the armed posse that comes knocking at their door is certainly a challenge. The film tries to innovate with the annoying McCarthyism subtext that may work incredibly well, but agitates me far too much to actually be enjoyable or acceptable. Its female focus is nice, but is only a new coat of paint on a tried and true storyline that never really feels to adventurous. Its reliance upon conveniences, such as a man falling from a table at the exact wrong time, a basement that seemingly nobody decided to check out despite walking around the saloon multiple times looking for the characters, and a magical horse that has the perfect timing in leading the posse right to their intended target, the film just relies on too many silly events to string together its tale. While I approach the western cliches a lot, this one just seems too convenient to actually work and, as such, suffers for it.
Johnny Guitar is a classic western that seems to beloved by many, but it simply did not work for me. From the half-hearted approach to allowing women to lead a western to the annoying trope invoked in the plot that is far too common in cinema, Johnny Guitar may try to dress up western cliches, but just dilutes them too much and winds up not being nearly entertaining enough. Instead, it is overly agitating, which nearly wipes out a typically excellent performance from Joan Crawford and terrific production and costume design. For me, Johnny Guitar is a not a complete swing-and-miss, but instead just a groundball that barely makes it out of the infield.…Expand