Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Crawford Watch: Johnny Guitar (1954)


Watched:  09/11/2020
Format: Watch Party
Viewing:  Third
Decade:  1950's
Director:  Nicholas Ray

I don't know how successful Johnny Guitar (1954) was upon its release.  As a Western, it plays with a lot of the tropes of expansion, cattlemen versus progress and settlement, gunslingers, robbing stage coaches and more.  But at the end of the day it's about two iron-willed women who really, really do not like each other, and how one self-righteous person can lead everyone down a path that ends in murder.

1954 was part of the second act of Joan Crawford's bumpy ride of a career that solidified nine years prior with Mildred Pierce.  The glamour days of Grand Hotel were 20 years in the past.  She still had the weirdo horror movie career ahead of her, and was just about to set out as America's foremost proponent of Pepsi Cola.

By 1954 Crawford was about 50.  She's playing a world-weary woman who has moved on from a disappointing love affair and set herself up as a saloon keeper in the middle of nowhere, waiting for the trains to come through (she's used her whiles to get the info from an employee of the railway).  Our action begins as Johnny Guitar (a laconic Sterling Hayden) rolls onto the scene, but not before witnessing a wagon robbery from afar.  

There's a group of rowdies who might have a mine, might be wagon robbers.  One of them, The Dancing Kid, has publicly stated designs on Vienna (Crawford).  But that stagecoach robbery left a prominent rancher dead - one whose sister already hates anyone new coming to the area, and REALLY hates Vienna - and begins her campaign to blame Vienna for everything.

It's a curious movie.  The men are in no way neutered, but they aren't the forces at work here - it's Vienna versus Emma Small, even if Vienna doesn't really want to play.  She just wants her piece of land and her peace - and she's tough and smart as they come (and has all the best lines).  Crawford plays Vienna with an iron edge, and she's decades out from The Women at this point, where she'd already shown she was the best of the best in Hollywood at spitting nails.  There's probably more here that Crawford could relate to than I want to try to draw parallels she, herself, may not have seen or cared about.  But there's no doubt that even in a movie with Sterling Hayden as the titular character that she commands the screen in every frame where she appears, and many where she does not.

I'd heard of Johnny Guitar as a sort of pretty-good-weirdo-movie that Crawford did and wasn't much discussed, but in the past few years, with re-release on BluRay (from Olive video), showing up on Amazon Prime and restoked interest in classic film - and the "no wire hangers" cartoon image of Crawford fading from the public perception - the movie has been undergoing a rediscovery.  Maybe the movie was ahead of its time, or said things at the time that didn't meet the audience where it lived.  It's a rarity as a female-led dramatic western (I own a copy of The Woman They Almost Lynched, which would make a fine companion for a double-bill).  Johnny Guitar's Vienna doesn't really need a goddamn man, and the fight over any is one-sided - it may not pass the Bechdel test in the small world of the frontier town in which it occurs, but it offers up some great counter-programming to a lot of films that leave women in westerns to fret in large dresses.  

Now's as good a time as any to mention that Westerns are a structure or setting, but they're also barely a genre - something like noir.  It's the possibilities of the frontier that open things up and remove the questions of "but doesn't he have to get up for work in the morning?" or "can't you just call the cops?" when your stories unspool.  An imbalance of power, high stakes, a battle for the future, and a self-made woman who doesn't take any nonsense all make for a good film in any setting, but the desperation of the frontier era in the US, where one mistake can get you killed, helps elevate and make for a solid film. 

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