[Editor’s Note from the Future: I wrote this about a year ago and was clearly in a very different situation: I was fairly new to the apartment, I was dating Rosie, and I was writing very dutiful and laborious plot summaries. Cringed a bit while reading this, and turned some sentences over, but wow. Interesting to see the progression.]
1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die gives to each recommendation a small passage of commentary from a film scholar, whose signature appears at the bottom in bold initials, and whoever wrote the passage for Johnny Guitar seems to be embarrassed about doing so. Keeps saying that the movie’s melodramatic and that you kinda need to have a special palate for this kinda thing. Feels kinda strange to be reading, and I imagine it might come off as condescending for somebody who’s got a totally sincere appreciation for the movie, but it also made me feel a kinship with that critic because I, too, am constantly feeling insecure about my affinity or disdain for some of these canonical staples.
I thought Johnny Guitar was really good, though, and not at all melodramatic—but, that being said, melodrama, like the idea of “camp,” is one of those things I’ve never felt I totally understood. (Same goes for active v. passive voice.) I’ve made a couple efforts at trying to understand them but at this point it’s the kinda thing where I’m just gonna lean back and explore the catalogue of things that’re called “melodramatic” and let the understanding come about intuitively.
Anyway. Johnny Guitar stars Joan Crawford who, as I’ve mentioned a couple times now, stole my attention when she first appeared on the List with Tod Browning’s The Unknown and then fell irredeemably in love with her in Mildred Pierce where, similar to here in Johnny Guitar, she plays a restauranteur.
Her character here is a tough saloon owner named Vienna. She’s given her business the same name, and business is bad: the bar’s empty, the card tables; but she’s hanging on until the day, clear on the horizon, when a train is gonna start letting off right outside. Then business will pick itself right up.
The titular Mr. Guitar is a musician she’s hired from some other town to come play at the saloon. He’s played by Sterling Hayden, who we last saw on the List as the brutal, aloof, well-intentioned hired muscle in Asphalt Jungle, and here he’s an equally combat-savvy guy, tough and soft-spoken, but he’s got a bit more swagger. We find out later that he’s a famous outlaw who’s changed his name and that once upon a time he and Vienna were in love.
So Crawford’s strong lead here resembles her role in Mildred Pierce, same goes for Hayden’s turn as a kindhearted brute, but the movie itself probably has more in common with High Noon than anything else on the List: it’s an unconventional western in that, for one thing, both the hero and the antagonist are women, and they’re going after each other with the same if not greater bloodlust than any two two male nemeses we’ve had on the List to date, and also—as Martin Scorsese points out in a nice little intro on the DVD—director Nicholas Ray is doing some interesting stuff with colors here [Editor’s Note from the Future: Scorsese’s gonna help me learn to appreciate Godard’s films a year later when he uses the word “colorist.”]. He points out that the posse of concerned citizens, who’ve gotten together in hopes of capturing some bandits who’ve been plaguing the area, are all dressed in black since they’re just returning from a ffuneral (Vienna’s nemesis, played by her real-life rival Mercedes McCambridge, wants Vienna dead for personal reasons and so tries to make the group think that this innocuous bar owner is actually in cohoots with them). They believe their cause is just in hunting down Vienna and the bandits. And, in essence, they really do appear to be good people. Concerned citizens who just happen to’ve been duped by a charismatic leader (McCambridge).
So the black clothes are a visual cue to the fact that, though they don’t know it, these kindhearted folks are the villains.
There are bandits, and the bandits really oughta be stopped cuz they’re a menace, but what Ray’s suggesting is that the really pernicious force here is the angry mob—and therein lies its relation to High Noon, which is a strangely tranquil and meditative western (loathed by the likes of Howard Hawks, and the Johns Ford & Wayne, who had different and unbending ideas about what a western oughta be and why) about an upstanding sheriff, played by Gary Cooper, who’s about to be met with an angry band of killers from his past. They’re coming into town with the intention of murdering him. So he goes all around to beg help from the people he’s protected and served throughout his career—but nobody wants to help him. He ends up going toe-to-toe with the bandits alone, save for some last-minute help from his bride (Grace Kelly), and, in so doing, shames the town. Goes off to live his solitary life with his young lover.
It’s a portrait of McCarthyism. The Red Scare was reaching a fever pitch and Senator Joe McCarthy, as the leading member of an investigative committee called the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), was calling people to speak before Congress about whether they were or were not members of the Communist party. They were also asked to name names, rat on their friends. People who didn’t comply were held in contempt of Congress—this is what happened with the Hollywood ten. They refused to answer McCarthy’s questions and spent about a year in prison. A blacklist seemed to ruin their career for a few years afterward, but the air was pretty much cleared by the start of the 1960s. McCarthy was shamed into oblivion and drank himself to death at 47.
All’s well that ends well.
But it’s interesting to see in Johnny Guitar and High Noon that the Western, which I guess is the most quintessentially American genre alongside the gangster picture, is so associated with escapism and fun and yet, in the ‘50s, became a major platform for political commentary. Maybe because, taking place about a hundred years prior, the filmmaker can dodge personal scrutiny by saying it’s got zero relation to what’s going on in the culture today.
“Joan Crawford is being hunted by Mercedes McCambridge because Mercedes wants to fuck the guy who wants to fuck Joan. What on Earth does that have to do with Senator McCarthy?”
Also of note: this movie seems to feature the first graphic bullet-to-the-forehead murder on the List. In the final scene one of our main characters gets shot in the head by a villain. We get a closeup of his face as his neck snaps back, his hat drops off, and there in the center of his forehead is a dollop of red. Also there’s a really great-looking duel-like shootout between two towering female characters: the villain as loathsome as any man who came before her, and the hero just as admirable.
And finally, I broke the List’s chronology to watch this. I’m supposed to be watching The Bigamist next, moviepicture n.253, but I came into a little bit of cash earlier in the week and decided to go to the library near my apartment and pay off my late fee. So I did that, browsed a little, checked out a few books from the film history section, and then I saw Johnny Guitar on the DVD shelf as I was heading out so I just grabbed it, walked home, and watched it.
I haven’t checked anything out from the library in almost a year because I just didn’t wanna have to pay the late fee—I’m thinking, though, that I’ve probably paid double the $16 late fee by having to pay, via Amazon, to see so many movies that I could have just checked out on DVD. I know a few people who are die-hard advocates for their local library, and I always think of them as being a little quaint, and maybe singing its praises more because it makes them sound wholesome and community-minded, but now that I’m visiting it again for the first time in so long, seeing how helpful and accepting a place it is (one of the super-defeating issues I’ve had since moving into the apartment and tightening my budget is the fact that, if you don’t wanna do work at home, you kinda have to spend a lot of money to go do it somewhere else: have to drive someplace, buy an expensive cuppa coffee or a beer, then sit there for only as long as it’ll reasonably take you to finish that drink and then you have to either move on or buy another). The library, though, seems like the safest of safe spaces. Saw people munching on chips and drinking soda while watching movies on laptops. Chatting in the appropriate sections. Chilling on armchairs. Studying, going through old government docs, tracing their fingers along maps.
This is probably the third time, in my two years working on the List, that I’ve “discovered” the library. Most likely I’ll be frequenting random branches obsessively for a month or six weeks and then I’ll go back to spending a fortune on streaming services. But hopefully I’ll make more of an effort to visit this fucking absurdly wonderful resource.