To Fight, You've Got To Kill: Johnny Guitar (1954)

As I may have mentioned before, I have made it a goal of mine to view every film on the TIFF top 100 film list.  It includes some fairly obvious films as part of its list e.g. Seven Samurai, A Clockwork Orange and Amarcord.  However, the list also includes some rather lesser known films that still manage to awe viewers with their cinematic excellence.  One such film is the genre-defying western Johnny Guitar, directed by Nicholas Ray.  Johnny Guitar is as much a movie about the Wild West, as Breathless is about gangsters.  Like Godard, Ray uses the genre as a societal lens, one that fashions a sense that perhaps women were undeservedly undervalued and gender rules were becoming more fleeting.  Furthermore, Ray masterfully crafts two film genres that had previously been strictly divided by gender, the male world of the western and the female world of the melodrama.  Despite disregarding the traditions of the genre, Johnny Guitar is everything one gets nostalgic about when recalling the western films of the forties and fifties.  It is a action-packed film that is both critically sound and widely enjoyable.

Johnny Guitar, despite being named after one of the films characters, is centered on the unconventional life of Vienna (Joan Crawford) who has found success and independence as a woman that runs a saloon/casino.  Vienna also has close ties with a group of local ruffians led by their deplorable leader The Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady).  The Dancin' Kid and his lackeys are known regulars at Vienna's place leading the town to blame her for a recent shooting.  It seems as though mob rule will lead to her death until Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) enters the picture moments before a bloodbath ensues.  Guitar represents a character whose dark past leaves his actions questionable, yet he seems eager for redemption.  This duel between Vienna's desire to run a bar free from the disdain of the villagers becomes the central plot focus, as the town mayor informs her that she is to leave within 24 hours or face being killed on the spot as a result of the gangs actions. 

At this point, the film shifts to its more melodramatic moments, when implying that Guitar and Vienna had a rather intimate past.  This change in the narrative makes their getting out of town all the more necessary, because they must do so to literally make their love survive.  The Dancin' Kid, upon realizing that Vienna loves Guitar, throws caution to the wind and decides to rob the town bank in rebellion.  Unfortunately for Vienna, it is assumed that she is part of the robbery and is to be hanged without trial.  Guitar using of skills from his dark past rescues Vienna, and after a lengthy and rather dramatic shootout the couple is shown reunited as they traipse through the wilderness.

The film is significant for its rather advance portrayal of an independent woman.  As is the norm for Ray, Vienna represents a drastic contrast to social norms, in a society that is exceptionally conservative.  Joan Crawford's character is a similar character to that of James Dean in Ray's most well known work Rebel Without A Cause.  This similarity then raises the question as to why the latter film is better known than Johnny Guitar, which could in some viewers eyes be the superior film.  My answer is simple, the film reflects a woman in an advantageous position, which would likely have confused and enraged most viewers in 1954, women included.  It takes no longer than ten minutes of an episode of Mad Men to realize that women were still undervalued well after the assumed leaps in civil rights.  Dean's rebellious character is certainly not the pinnacle of social good, but in the terms of 1955 he was performing his masculinity properly, and image of a woman defying it a year earlier though...that was apparently too absurd.  We can only applaud Ray's attempts to make such a film and it is great the critics have taken it upon themselves to promote such a hidden gem, because it is deserved of the acclaim...even if it comes from a minority of film critics.

Sadly, Johnny Guitar is currently out-of-print.  I snagged mine through some rather complicated means.  I would suggest you demand its release by whatever studio owns it, because it is a work equitable to Rebel Without A Cause, if not better.

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