Classic Movie Review: Johnny Guitar (1954)

Title: Johnny Guitar
Release Date: August 23, 1954
Director: Nicholas Ray
Production Company: Republic Pictures

One thing I enjoy about watching movies off the Cahiers du Cinéma list is that along with the expected French films, there are completely bonkers Hollywood movies that don’t seem to get the same recognition in the Anglophone world.  Sterling Hayden (who would later go on to steal scenes in Dr. Strangelove and The Godfather) plays the titular guitar-slinging cowboy who travels to the outskirts of a remote cattle town in Arizona, presumably to provide entertainment at a saloon/casino. The railroad hasn’t arrived in town yet so there are no customers in the large and elaborate establishment that looks like it would be a really awesome 20th-century Western theme park hotel.

While Johnny Guitar has his name in the title, he’s more of a supporting character to the real star of this film, Sienna (Joan Crawford).  She’s a pants-wearing, gun-totin’ saloon-keeper who is fully intent on making sure she has a profitable future by supporting the railroad against the objections of the rest of the town folk.  She also raises their ire by allowing a gang of miners who are believed to be robbers lead by The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) to frequent her saloon.  But really they are against Sienna because Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) has a personal animus against Sienna and will use any pretext to drive her out of town.

I won’t say that this movie is a striking blow for feminism, but it is refreshing to see a movie where the main protagonist and antagonist are both women who act well outside the confines of female stereotypes of the time.  The dialogue in this film is full of witty banter as if someone like Aaron Sorkin were behind writing it.  And there are a lot of quirky twists and full-on DRAMATICS that make it entertaining.  I found myself enjoying this movie a lot although I do feel it fizzles out with a more conventional Western conclusion.

If you don’t like Westerns, try this one, because it is not quite what you’d expect from the genre.

Rating: ***1/2