Entire family: No
1954, 110 min., Color
Unrated (would be PG for adult themes and some violence)
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1 (full widescreen)
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: A-
In 1947 the House Un-American Activities Committee interrogated members of Hollywood about alleged Communists in the film industry, and the “Hollywood Ten” refused to cooperate—which resulted in their being blacklisted and unable to work again in their profession. Even into the early 1950s, those “Red Menace” flames were fanned by Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose unsubstantiated claims that there were huge numbers of Soviet spies and sympathizers living among us sparked additional modern-day witchhunts.
Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible—his dramatization of the Salem witch trials—as an allegory criticizing McCarthyism, and anyone who knows history and watches the 1954 Western Johnny Guitar will recognize it as another allegory, one that references not only the idea of the McCarthy-style witch hunt but also Miller’s play. It’s hard not see in the “funeral attire” of a posse and the firebrand reformer of a woman who leads them a pretty exact match with the stark black-and-white dress of the Puritans who tried women as witches simply because another woman—jealous, perhaps—“accused” her of witchcraft. Accusation was enough to justify burning at the stake, and that same lack of tolerance and lack of due process drives this intelligent Western, which also features a “burning.”
So what does that mean for family TV night? Well, Johnny Guitar isn’t a guilty pleasure, that’s for sure. It’s not the kind of movie you pop in for mindless entertainment. It’s not a typical formulaic Western with a strong male hero rescuing a damsel in distress. This revisionist Western features a strong female protagonist and big fight at the end that pits one strong woman against another. There’s gunplay, certainly, but as in High Noon—another intellectual Western—it’s measured, and a direct result of character. Compared to other Westerns, Johnny Guitar is high art—richly atmospheric and with noir elements that will remind viewers of such dramatic films as Key Largo. It’s directed by is directed by Nicholas Ray, who also gave us Rebel without a Cause, and fans of James Dean will see similarities here as well. All of which make this Western—which French critics collectively pronounced one of the best of all time—family viewing only if you have teenagers who can appreciate thoughtful and well-constructed films that aren’t made for the masses.
Joan Crawford plays Vienna, a former saloon “girl”—a woman who survived by giving pleasure to men, though nothing so blunt is ever specifically stated. Through a series of events that also are left to our imaginations, Vienna has raised herself up. She once worked in a saloon, but now she owns a saloon isolated in the foothills apart from a small cattle town. She’s at odds with the townspeople, not only because of morality—Emma Small (as in small-minded?) wants to drive her away—but because she’s working with the railroad to run tracks through her property and build a depot right there by her saloon.
In a nod to TV Westerns and B movies, a stagecoach is held up by a gang, and the town accuses Vienna of being in cahoots with The Dancin’ Kid and his boys, which memorably include young Turkey (Ben Cooper) and crusty Bart (Ernest Borgnine). But this is an “iceberg” Western, with most of it lurking beneath the surface. Every character has a back story that viewers are invited to figure out, and to speculate about the relationship between Vienna and Emma, between The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) and both women, among the “gang” members, and between Vienna and the unarmed stranger (Sterling Hayden) who rides into town with a guitar slung on his back. For that matter, Johnny Guitar invites you to speculate on the notion of power and who has it in this town—the head of the cattlemen (Ward Bond), the marshal (Frank Ferguson), or Emma as the voice of all things “proper.” And why does Vienna really want that railroad to go right past her saloon?
Johnny Guitar was added to the National Film Registry in 2008, and it truly is “culturally, historically” and “aesthetically” significant. Aside from the allegorical elements there’s much to appreciate and discuss about the film’s structure and the ways in which it plays with Western clichés, or the way it offers a feminist, revisionist take on the West. It’s the kind of movie that you discuss with your kids, rather than crack jokes during the film—though it might be hard not to joke briefly about Mercedes McCambridge’s performance as Emma, a fanatic who acts wild-eyed crazy, or even the harsh-featured Crawford, who plays her character like a strong-and-silent male Western hero. Yet, while the style of acting borders on the melodramatic, as was common at the time, the heady elements keep it from being unintentionally funny. Director Ray uses atmosphere and sparse dialogue to create and sustain a tension that holds you until the end credits. And for a 1954 film aimed at making a statement about politics run amuck, that’s a pretty good feat.
Olive Films has been quietly building a catalog of old films, but with this release they launch Olive Signature—“the next generation of fan-centered entertainment.” It’s their version of the Criterion Collection, with a handsome slipcase and a barrel of bonus features that draws upon the knowledge of film historians and admirers like Martin Scorsese. A full-color booklet includes a terrific essay on “Johnny Guitar: The First Existentialist Western,” and the print itself looks and sounds great in HD. It’s a wonderful release that’s aimed at intelligent people who can appreciate intelligent films. Especially if your teens are reading The Crucible in high school they might appreciate watching this one.
Language: Nothing much; “tramp” is as bad as it gets
Sex: None, though everything simmers below the surface and is so subtle that children won’t get it
Violence: Several people are shot and killed, but old-school style, no blood; there’s also one lynching with the camera turning away during the crucial moment
Adult situations: Pretty much the entire film; it takes place in a saloon, so there you go
Takeaway: The more you watch this Western, the more you see, and its allegoric message is still sadly appropriate today