“Lie to me. Tell me you love me.”
In Johnny Guitar (1954), Joan Crawford’s Vienna is the most masculine of women western heroes. A former saloon girl who earned her way to owning her own gambling house, she’s a mature woman with a history and she’s not ashamed of what she did to carve out her claim for a future.
Directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge as frontier entrepreneurs in a war of wills, Johnny Guitar is one of the most unusual westerns of its era, or any era for that matter. It’s dense with psychological thickets and political reverberations (including a not-so-veiled allegory for the McCarthy witch-hunts in Hollywood), designed with color both expressive and explosive, and directed with the grace of a symphony and the drama of an opera. Sterling Hayden plays the title character, a lanky, affable cowboy who wanders into Vienna’s saloon in the opening minutes and serves as witness to the dramas bubbling up in this frontier community in the hills. But his acts of heroism aside, he’s the equivalent of the stalwart girlfriend watching the showdown from the sidelines.
Emma Small (McCambridge) is the town banker and moral arbiter whose power is threatened by Vienna (her saloon is built on the site of the railway line), and her shameful desire for a bad boy miner is inflamed into vengeance against Vienna, the object of his desire. This is a clash of wills that erupts in fire and destruction with the two players taking on roles out of a modern myth. Emma, leading a lynch mob while still in a black mourning dress, confronts Vienna, clad in a soft, white, elegant gown while playing the saloon’s piano: the dark, angry fairy tale witch taking on the innocent heroine, though Vienna is anything but innocent. And when Vienna sets the place on fire and practically dances in triumph, a black figure against the bright flames, she’s the wicked witch incarnate. But symbolism aside, the scene burns deep and hot with rage and revenge unleashed.
There is nothing traditional about this American western—it’s the cultist of cult classics, embraced as camp by some and grand frontier opera by others—and certainly not for anyone who prefers their westerns with straightforward plots and emotions in check. But it counts Martin Scorsese among its fans. The great French filmmaker and critic Jean-Luc Godard once made the claim that “Nicholas Ray is cinema.” Johnny Guitar is one of the films that makes his case.