Nicholas Ray’s fever-dream of a Western has Joan Crawford, in slightly crazed form near the end of her leading-lady days, as Vienna, a farsighted saloon owner holding on to her place till the railroad comes thru. She’s mistrusted in town, especially by Mercedes McCambridge, her sexually frustrated rival for the Dancin’ Kid. What McCambridge doesn’t know is that Joan’s tru-love is about to come a’callin’, a certain Johnny Guitar (long, tall, stolid Sterling Hayden). But between the railway’s explosive excavations, a deadly stagecoach holdup and a bank robbery that occurs just as Vienna cleans out her account, the lid on this emotional pressure cooker of a drama is fated to burst. Working in the inflamed hues of Republic Pictures’ TruColor process, lenser Harry Stradling finds a palette that exceeds Philip Yordan’s purple-prose script. There’s always a few spots in these ‘50s meller that prove too much for modern audiences to get past, and stifling unintended howlers was never a Nicholas Ray strong point. Even his masterful BIGGER THAN LIFE/’56 elicits a goodly share of unwanted eruptions. But who cares when the dramatic thrust is so bold, so sure; when the blast of color so primeval (those Crawford blouses!); the action so thrilling, and never more so than when McCambridge exults in fiery triumph. That last one does create a bit of a structural problem. How do you follow GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG? And speaking of music, Victor Young plugs his ‘Johnny Guitar Theme’ mercilessly, but what a tune to plug! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jw9pxjzfSX0
No surprise that the film has steadily gained critical favor, moving from Camp Classic to Revered Masterwork, but why think of these categories as mutually exclusive?
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Not many people in Hollywood (well, not many actors & directors) know their way around a kitchen, even a fake studio kitchen. But watch Vienna as she cooks up some eggs for Johnny. Not only does Crawford use a bit of bacon drippings to fry up the eggs, she even tosses the empty shells in the coffee pot! That’s an old-fashioned, now rarely seen trick to clarify boiled coffee. (The technique is still used on bouillon.) Does it show up anywhere else in the history of film?