A Western melodrama from director Nicholas Ray, Johnny Guitar may be named after Sterling Hayden’s character, but it’s clear that this is Joan Crawford’s movie, even before she straps on a gun belt and threatens some unruly visitors to her saloon with this: “Down there I sell whiskey and cards. All you can buy up these stairs is a bullet in the head. Now which do you want?”
In Johnny Guitar, we just want more Crawford. Mildred Pierce unleashed on the wild, wild West, Crawford’s Vienna has arrived in a frontier town to stake her claim in advance of the railroad. It’s a smart bet, but one that doesn’t sit well with the longtime residents—especially Mercedes McCambridge’s Emma Small, who sees Vienna as a threat to traditional values of all kinds. Emma impugns Vienna about her sordid past and frames her for murder and robbery. By the time Johnny—a former, um, friend of Vienna’s—arrives in town, a lynch mob has formed.
So, yes, Johnny Guitar functions as a parable for McCarthyism, as well as for the hysteria that can result from any sort of provincial repression. In the face of this, Vienna refuses to budge. On the night the mob comes for her, she dons a swooping white dress and calmly sits down at the grand piano in her saloon. Ray’s camera tracks in through the front door to reveal her perched at the keys, as if she not only owns the establishment, but the whole town.
McCambridge froths at the mouth pretty much throughout, making Crawford’s performance seem subdued. Hayden is even more low-key; his stolidity had its limitations, but here it’s a nice foil for the scenes when Crawford gets going. It takes a certain sturdiness to withstand bits like this, which Vienna spits at Johnny, and stay standing: “A man can lie, steal … and even kill. But as long as he hangs on to his pride, he’s still a man. All a woman has to do is slip—once. And she’s a ‘tramp.’ Must be a great comfort to you to be a man.”
Maybe, but then you couldn’t be Joan Crawford.