The Hateful Greatness
If you're a relative newcomer to Westerns (as am I), no one would blame you for walking right past a 50s movie called Johnny Guitar. It sounds like a lame singing-cowboy flick, and the poster art's impossibly vivid Sunday-funnies coloring doesn't exactly scream "cool". But spend five minutes with Nicholas Ray's ultra-violent, ultra-feminist, ultra-'mazing genre experiment, and you'll be roped into a hypnotic vortex of positively rapturous cinema.
Yep, that language is as florid and pretentious as it gets (as is the word "florid"). But there's simply no overstating the power of Joan Crawford navigating a love pentagram* while outwitting a town of hypocritical Puritans, led by one of the most blood-chillingly evil characters I've ever seen on film. Last year, Quentin Tarantino tripped over himself trying to deliver a button-smashing commentary on frontier justice, marked by cruelty-as-gender-equality (or something). Johnny Guitar accomplishes a hundred percent more than The Hateful Eight, with a third less run-time and an eightieth less bloodshed.
The film opens with a deadly stagecoach robbery, followed by a convergence of all the major players in Vienna's, an elegant but empty casino/saloon on the outskirts of a small New Mexico town. First comes Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), a mysterious traveling musician who witnessed the robbery from afar. Next is the mob of angry townsfolk, led by Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), whose brother was killed in the hold-up. Emma suspects that one of Vienna's many unscrupulous lovers, The Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady), committed the crime. Moments later, the Kid and his gang bust into the saloon to escape the dust storm wreaking havoc outside.
Vienna refuses to let anyone leave her place with a noose around their neck, especially without any proof of wrongdoing. The local lawmen have to practically drag the bloodthirsty Emma away, but not before she vows to kill Vienna for protecting her brother's killer (and, apparently, for years of sordid history that the movie only hints at). We soon learn that Vienna and Johnny Guitar have their own complicated past, that The Dancin' Kid doesn't care too much for playing second fiddle, and that nearly every man in town is reluctant to bring Vienna down because, well...there's a lot that's implied.
To give the rest of the plot away is unfair. Suffice it to say, the situation gets twistier by the scene. Philip Yordan and an uncredited Nicholas Ray (working from Roy Chanslor's novel) establish a few key flashpoints that their characters react to in poor but understandable ways. Johnny Guitar is like a Rube Goldberg machine of misunderstandings and desperation that can't be paused or re-set--even though the audience (and, to a large extent, the characters) know that everyone would make better, more rational decisions, if only they'd allow themselves a moment to cool down. There's a lot of Tarantino in Johnny Guitar and, I suspect, a lot of Johnny Guitar in most of Tarantino's works. Sure, the creator of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and The Hateful Eight never claimed to have invented robberies-gone-wrong; double- and triple-crosses; poetic, tough-guy dialogue; and violent, climactic set pieces--but watching Johnny Guitar was a personal revelation, an awakening to the fact that Nicholas Ray had one-upped Tarantino forty years earlier, and with a pair of whip-smart, fiery female leads to boot.
Yes, the movie is named after Sterling Hayden’s character, and it’s lousy with gruff, swingin’ dicks, but Johnny Guitar belongs to the women. Whatever rage fuels Emma’s vendetta against Vienna, its angry pulse energizes every scene and reduces the men to clumsy, passion-blind cat toys. I have never been so terrified by a non-supernaturally-possessed character than I was of Emma Small. McCambridge, who, particularly in the last half of the film, when she’s dressed all in black and embracing the bonfire she’s set in the middle of Vienna’s saloon, looks like Anna Kendrick by way of Miss Gulch from The Wizard of Oz. There’s a certain cowardice to Emma’s mania that makes her uncontrollable rage so much more frightening, as if her annoyance at upholding the mask of civility has spurred on even darker degrees of sadism.
Then we have Vienna. It’s not hard to see why a town full of men (straight-laced and crooked alike) would fall for the sassy saloon owner who’s not afraid to use guns and sexuality to build an empire in exile. With her slim frame, short-cut hair, and penchant for wearing masculine clothes, Crawford exudes something resembling androgyny that swings a bit too far over the line in each direction to be outright labeled as such. Vienna is subtly tender but mostly caustic, and her saloon is a manifestation of society’s compartmentalized guilt, the place men secret away to on Friday and pray about on Sunday. It is only by virtue of a far more aggressively powerful temptress that Vienna loses her tenuous social footing.
A bit more on that idea of Vienna’s as a den of physical and spiritual temptation: the saloon is built into a mountainside, and the interior wood walls bleed into blazing red rock. Virtue evaporates here, and Ray underscores the saloon as a portal to moral collapse midway through the film, when the townspeople (all dressed in black) conduct a hasty trial of Vienna (dressed all in white) and one of The Dancin’ Kid’s injured posse. This tense and truly wicked display of mob justice is absolutely terrifying, thanks in part to the performances, and in part to Ray's operatic, otherworldly visuals.
In The Hateful Eight, Tarantino relied on sustained abuse to Jennifer Jason Leigh's face and casual use of the "N" word to sell audiences on the boldness and inherent danger of his film. Contrast that with Nicholas Ray, who uses up-close violence sparingly, so that when we see a main character take a bullet right between the eyes, the shock registers in our hearts as well as on the actor's face. Just as Johnny Guitar isn't really about Johnny Guitar, Ray's film isn't about reveling in morbidity, even though it has one of the blackest hearts of any Western you'll ever see.
*Too many points of connection for a run-of-the-mill love triangle. Plus, every character involed is likely going to Hell.