Favorite Film: JOHNNY GUITAR (1954)

October 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

“When you boil it all down, what does a man really need? A smoke and a cup of coffee.”

So says Sterling Hayden’s eponymous hero in one of JOHNNY GUITAR’s rare intervals of stillness. The line comes about half an hour into the film, during a heated altercation in a stone-fortified saloon on the outskirts of a nearby cattle town. On one side is the saloon’s staunchly independent proprietress Vienna, played with a clenched fierceness by Joan Crawford, and on the other side are the local townspeople determined to drive her out before a soon-to-be constructed railroad floods her establishment with customers from the East. Newly arrived Johnny, maneuvering the crowd with a laidback gait, seems like just the outsider to resolve the spat, rattling off terse aphorisms about life’s bare essentials before strumming the soothing strings of his namesake’s guitar.

But this is the cinema of Nicholas Ray, one of anguished romanticism and irreconcilable opposites, and in Johnny Guitar he renders what would in another film be the stuff of legible Western archetype as the muddied inkblots of an expressionistic nightmare. The film opens with Johnny traversing an apocalyptic Arizona landscape, the distant blasts of railway company explosives the only aural respite from a howling dust storm that almost never relaxes its grip on the soundtrack. After impassively witnessing a distant stagecoach robbery that results in a killing, Johnny arrives at the cavernous establishment, lit up in pastel orange and anchored by a second-floor balcony that doubles as Vienna’s authoritative podium. The townspeople are led by John McIvers, played by a growling Ward Bond, and Emma Small, a Puritanical firebrand played by Mercedes McCambridge as Vienna’s sexually tormented double. Emma has come to pin the stagecoach murder of her brother on The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), one of Vienna’s former lovers who, along with his undesirable associates, continues to frequent her saloon. The Kid is also the object of Emma’s frustrated desires, and he, together with Vienna, occupies the locus of her misdirected psychosexual rage.

When Johnny makes his belated appearance on the scene, he isn’t contending with an outraged populace seeking law and order or the town’s economic best interest. Rather, he finds himself wading into a thick Freudian stew. His words of wanderer’s wisdom are dissolved and instantly forgotten.

The rest of the film sees Johnny exert very little causal force on the narrative, which seems Biblically foredoomed to a destruction that he is powerless to prevent. Instead, we see his cool façade crumble under the weight of the past and its demons. We learn that he and Vienna were once a couple, that it has been five years since they have seen each other, and that they are still hopelessly in love. In one of Ray’s trademarked romanticism-by-night scenes, the two dredge up painful memories, acting out a dialogue that is fundamentally mimetic, a hollowed out iteration of a romantic encounter from long ago. Just as James Dean and Natalie Wood mockingly play-act the parts of a married couple in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, Johnny and Vienna are more comfortable channeling their feelings into cynical, dispassionate word games than expressing them outright. Social outsiders holed up in a lonely corner of a hostile and meaningless world, this is the most sincerity they can muster.

If Johnny shares his distinct mixture of embittered cynicism and romantic longing with the lonesome heroes of many of Ray’s other movies—Humphrey Bogart in IN A LONELY PLACE, Robert Ryan in ON DANGEROUS GROUND, James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE—then Vienna seems to foreshadow the protagonists of BITTER VICTORY and WIND ACROSS THE EVERGLADES, determined individuals whose self-inverted antagonists they are predestined to annihilate. Those films isolate their characters within and distill the volatility of their emotions into elemental, depopulated environments, within which Ray explores the contradictory nuances of mutual hatred and affection. JOHNNY GUITAR strikes me as a film about the social reverberations of an oppositional binary. Emma’s and Vienna’s adversarial dynamic doesn’t burrow inward but explodes outward, scorching everything in its path.

By this token, the film’s most tragic incidents have little to do with its key players and almost everything to do with the smaller characters who get caught in the crossfire. Most famously, Emma’s rallying of the townspeople into a bloodthirsty posse facilitates a chilling sequence aimed squarely at the McCarthy witch-hunts. The mob has taken the youngest member of the Dancin’ Kid’s gang (Ben Cooper) prisoner and promised him his freedom if he ousts Vienna as co-conspirator in a bank robbery they had committed earlier that day. The boy chooses to save himself, but his salvation never arrives—he is hanged immediately. A less remarked-upon sequence, and one I find even more powerful, concerns Old Tom (John Carradine), an employee of Vienna’s who remains by her side after she has officially closed up shop. In accordance with the scene’s melancholy tone—Vienna is saying goodbye to everything she has accomplished for herself—Tom notes that he has always felt “like a piece of furniture.” Shortly thereafter, once the mob has arrived, he leaps to Vienna’s defense only to be ruthlessly gunned down by Emma. On his deathbed he tells Vienna that he finally feels important, that “this is the first chance I ever had to be a hero.” Ray’s cinema is full of such moments, in which death confers an otherworldly dignity on characters who have been marginalized in life, and this scene is all the more poignant for Tom’s almost total irrelevance to the plot.

In JOHNNY GUITAR, opposites are inextricable from one other, and the lines that divide idealized happiness from mordant despair, unflinching composure from flitting anxiety, ordinary life from operatic death, are always tenuous. Johnny convincingly plays the drifter-at-ease before the sound of gunfire sends him into trigger-happy convulsion. The same chandelier that Vienna lovingly lights in domestic evening ritual is the same that Emma sends crashing down to set the saloon ablaze. The film’s most jarring tonal shift occurs at the end, when Johnny and Vienna descend from the summit of the film’s climactic bloodbath to embrace in front of a storybook waterfall, a resolution that should by all reason feel ludicrous and cheap. But JOHNNY GUITAR is already a proudly ludicrous movie, one that sidesteps cinematic good sense in favor of crazed, impassioned emotions writ impossibly large. In a film that continually emphasizes the steep cost of romantic fulfillment in an antagonistic and morally unstable world, settling on an image of such wildly fantastic proportions is just the way to let us know that Johnny and Vienna have earned it. – Stuart

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