Does it come at all as a surprise that the first image in the often-hallucinatory Johnny Guitar features an explosion, and one whose cause is not immediately apparent? Or that the next sequence draws attention to a seemingly unpremeditated stagecoach robbery? Or again that when the subsequent shot situates us in something at least affiliated to an outpost of civilization, the saloon and gambling house owned by Vienna (Joan Crawford), the physical environment in which it is located is tormented by a torrent of wind seemingly out of proportion to any of the weather we had observed in the previous two sequences? Extravagance of image and action are circumstances we customarily associate with the work of Nicholas Ray, yet the manner in which this film appears to take place in a universe that will frequently thwart custom or convention becomes emphasised even before we know who the characters are, where they are located or what their associations or motivations might be. Victor Young’s sonorous soundtrack and the familiar eagle emblem of Republic Pictures that accompany the credit sequence might easily mislead us to assume that this narrative will resemble its studio’s other outdoor output, just with better production values and higher-priced performers. But things are quite the contrary, and elements of what ensues will prove to be as anomalous than if Gene Autry or Roy Rogers, the studio’s pre-eminent western icons, were to be overcome by impulses as neurotic as those that threaten a number of the characters in the film’s narrative, or if one of their female co-stars were behaviourally bushwhacked by motivations as contorted as those imperilling Mercedes McCambridge’s distraught Emma Small.

As Geoff Andrew, in his indispensible extended analysis of Ray’s career, usefully reminds us: “Tension – a sense of things being so out of balance, so unstable, so fragile, that the whole edifice of a personality, a relationship or a society will fall apart – is virtually a sine qua non of Ray’s work” (1). Our sense of balance is thrown askew in Johnny Guitar even when the narrative launches us into a seemingly conventional establishment of place and personalities. Sterling Hayden’s eponymous hero evades any clear identification of his identity or intentions; the establishment’s middle-aged employees seem like little more than stage props without any customers for their services; and the masculine demeanour and curt dialogue attached to Crawford’s character reinforce how we cannot necessarily call upon genre-supported procedures to reassure us of our bearings. Even when the protagonists provide some manner of back-story to satisfy our concern with causality, the ingredients remain a curious blend of the obvious and the elusive. What specifically drove Johnny to adopt his pseudonym and return to Emma’s side after a prolonged absence? What brought together such a set of seemingly mismatched associates to comprise the Dancing Kid’s cohorts, such that Royal Dano’s book reading Corey finds himself paired with the hair-triggered Bart (Ernest Borgnine)? Why do we never learn the actual names of a number of figures, not just the Kid but also his youngest associate, Turkey (Ben Cooper), or the full name of Vienna for that matter? And then, one is left with the complex of fixations that are meant to provide some manner of anchorage for McCambridge’s scenery-chewing obsession with Vienna and her apparently thwarted attraction to the Dancing Kid (Scott Brady)? Are her excesses conveniently explained by conventional psychology or did the actress simply abandon any kind of discernable motivation and embark instead upon a behavioural free-for-all?

The production history of Johnny Guitar alluded to in David Thomson’s “Have You Seen…?” A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films reinforces his conviction that “it’s difficult to approach Johnny Guitar as the result of any kind of sensible process” (2). Agent Lew Wasserman had cobbled together the project and enlisted the author of the source material, Roy Chanslor, to concoct a script, which Crawford vehemently rejected once production had begun on location in Arizona. Philip Yordan was recruited to salvage the potential disaster, but who – Ray, Yordan, Wasserman, Yates – encouraged and then applauded the abandonment of anything resembling understatement? Ray’s films were often created as though in a state of delirium, and the director’s mercurial and, finally, impenetrable personality more than once dictated the elusive motivations that drive his characters, causing one to wonder to what degree he remained in control of his own work or potentially allowed the elements to collide with and, ultimately, contradict one another? It might well be worth asking if anyone can be considered the ultimate auteur of this picture, or whether the final results reflect the individual, and sometimes undeniably idiosyncratic, decisions of a group of people who may well have possessed as little sense of commonality as the characters in the script?

More than one commentator has remarked upon the frequency with which Ray draws attention to specific elements of the physical locations of his narratives, and in this case, the waterfall behind which lie the Dancing Kid’s hideout amounts to yet one more of the director’s multi-dimensional environments. Superficially, one might think of this descending body of water as a kind of curtain between separable realities or an agent of metamorphosis, something like the mirrors in the work of Jean Cocteau, particularly in Orphée (1950). Once behind this phenomenon, some of the characters, particularly those in the Dancing Kid’s gang, transform their identities and decide to become the outlaws that Emma, and others, believe them to be. (Do we, for that matter, ever find out who actually was behind that stagecoach robbery?) Does that same puncturing of personality occur in the very last shot, when Vienna and Johnny emerge from the water and, presumably, initiate a new life together, absolved of their engagement in the violent actions that have just transpired: Vienna’s killing of Emma and Johnny’s violent attack upon the Dancing Kid? Certainly, the cast of Johnny Guitar do display a more than fluid command of their characterisations, and Ray’s use of the element of water perhaps might be a means of reinforcing that disequilibrium.

An emphasis upon the inconsistencies and instabilities of Johnny Guitar serves to reinforce the work’s undeniable complexity; yet, at the same time it would be unwise and inappropriate not to draw equal attention to the film’s employment of genre conventions and industrial norms. Throughout Ray’s career, he maintained a dialectical tension between the formulaic and the fantastic, a simultaneous expression of the practices of the community in which he was employed and his impulse to subvert those inclinations. As Peter Hogue remarks: “Ray’s vision retains a measure of the heroic size associated with Hollywood at its grandest while also moving vigorously away from the sentimentality and facile optimism of Hollywood at its most insipid” (3). It would be unhelpful, therefore, not to regard Johnny Guitar within the system of imagery and behaviour associated with Joan Crawford in particular and, consequently, imagine that the actress approached the picture as some kind of avant-garde deviation from her customary fare. Thomson reminds us that, however outrageous the activity that surrounds her, Crawford comes across as engaged, almost to a fault, within the prescribed arena of the kind of characterisation she had concocted over the course of what was then nearly a 30-year career. Sometimes, one gets the feeling that she and some of the others in the cast (Ward Bond, for example) remain temperamentally oblivious to the oddities Ray, and his collaborators, assembled. Thomson draws attention to the fixated manner with which the star engages the camera, as “Crawford plays everything three or four inches beyond the hilt and struts around – in black riding clothes or a white wedding dress – like a lost cake ornament” (4). In addition, it would be historically erroneous to conceive of Johnny Guitar as isolated in its tweaking of conventionality or commitment to the kind of heightened behaviour that subsequently would be characterised, by Susan Sontag and others, as camp. We would do well to remember that John Huston’s inversion of certain industrial norms, Beat the Devil (1953), was released the same year, and used Humphrey Bogart’s hard-bitten persona as fuel for folly in a manner similar to that of Ray and his confederates. Admittedly, Huston’s film failed at the box office, while Ray’s was the most financially successful of his career. Maybe the strains of Young’s theme tranquilised as many members of the audience as it now alerts aficionados of Johnny Guitar to the self-consciousness of its design. Like members of the cast, once we, so to speak, pass beyond the waterfall, all conventional wagers upon the kind of standardisation of production implicit in the studio system’s agenda become temporarily lost in the downpour.

Endnotes

  1. Geoff Andrew, The Films of Nicholas Ray, BFI, London, 2004, p. 13.
  2. David Thomson, “Have You Seen…? A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films”, Allen Lane, London, 2008, p. 423.
  3. Peter Hogue, “Savage Innocent”, Film Comment vol. 30, no. 1, January/February 1994, p. 86.
  4. Thomson, p. 423.

Johnny Guitar (1954 USA 110 mins)

Prod Co: Republic Pictures Prod: Herbert J. Yates Dir: Nicholas Ray Scr: Philip Yordan, adapted from the novel by Roy Chanslor Phot: Harry Stradling Ed: Richard L. Van Enger Art Dir: James Sullivan Mus: Victor Young

Cast: Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden Mercedes McCambridge, Scott Brady, Ward Bond, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Cooper, John Carradine, Royal Dano

About The Author

David Sanjek was appointed Professor of Music and Director of the Centre for Popular Music at the University of Salford, U.K. in October 2007. His piece “Fans’ Notes” was reprinted in the Cult Film Reader (Open University Press, 2007), and he is readying two books for publication: Always On My Mind: Music, Memory and Money and Stories We Could Tell: Putting Words to American Popular Music.