Johnny Guitar is arguably the most spellbinding, psychosexual, genre-bending western ever made. While it didn’t receive critical acclaim when it first came out, since then it has grown to become one of Nicholas Ray’s indisputable classics. Through a full-bodied character-driven narrative Johnny Guitar stirs a debate about its many evident Freudian connotations.
The most bizarre thing about this film is the fact that – at first – it’s really hard to attach it to one particular genre. Though the setting, the characters and their outfits fit into a typical western perfectly, Johnny Guitar starts off quite unpredictably and stays this way till the very end. It’s an oddly radical creation, one that’s not afraid to step beyond established boundaries, in order to show its mad, subversive, yet astonishingly creative nature.
When a lone ranger ridiculously named Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden, obviously with a guitar in his hand) steps into a saloon somewhere in the Far West no one comes of the whole affair unharmed. He’s there to find solace and earn a living, but his arrival only foreshadows a dramatic turn of events. Soon an angry mob steps into the canteen, ravishingly mad at its owner, a beautiful yet mysterious woman named Vienna (Joan Crawford), and her four no-goodniks friends – Dancin’ Kind (Scott Brady) and his entourage. After a robust exchange of views the group leaves the place, but promises revenge for the death of their fellow men, killed that day in a stagecoach holdup. Vienna knows that it’s the work of her thuggish buddies, but still decides to aid them. However, she doesn’t know that the leader of the mob, a psychotic, temperamental, and very persuasive Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) will do almost everything in order to see Vienna’s demise.
In the meantime, Johnny’s true identity is revealed, and he’s really not what he seems. Behind the tranquil, soft mask of a guitar player hides a dark past, which involves Vienna, a heartfelt romance, and a gun craze. Fortunately for the lady and her tough yet frightened friends, Johnny might be the savior everyone was looking for, but inevitably also the one who might be the cause of their defeat. Ironically so, in the amazingly rambling and climatic finale the two groups take part in a deadly shootout and the result might be satisfying to say the least.
Johnny Guitar is a tender, high camp, sometimes a bit too melodramatic, but still strangely unforgettable western with a lot of romance and sexual tension, all wrapped up in a nice, bold, politically relevant package. Emma is jealous of Vienna’s easiness with men, becomes obsessed, and is finally ready to finish off her old rival. Now she finally got her motive, and she’s ready to do some damage, unaware of the repulsion her behavior causes. Vienna is her counterpart, a strong and independent lady who is loved by all men and loathed by women. Johnny Guitar is probably the most unusual western ever, where female characters are in the center, and the duel between them is the film’s most effective sequence. The tension, the sexual drive, the raging id, and the women’s anger combined make men look really small in the outcome.