Johnny Guitar? You probably think this film is about you.

This is the text of an introduction I gave at a re-release screening of Johnny Guitar at the British Film Institute on May 6th 2016

I saw Johnny Guitar for first time here at the BFI to whom I”ll always be grateful. You kind of need to see it in company to believe it got made. Leonard Maltin called this cinema’s first “kinky” Western which is a very American term that undersells its sexual weirdness. I have myself in the past called it polysexual and plain wacko.

In Johnny Guitar, all the conversations and backstories suggest almost everyone is in love with everyone else, or has had everyone else in the past or would like to have had everyone else. But most importantly, the main point hammered home for the benefit of its star is that every man in this film, is really also only in love with Joan Crawford. Which is as it should be.

Joan in a dress

Joan in a dress

Which is why the more I watch it, even though it’s based on a novel by a different Western writer, I think of this film as forgive the pun. Fifty Shades of Zane Grey. This is a more intriguing fantasy of a 50ish woman – that’s about how old Joan herself was at the time. Not being a virgin. But being in charge and everyone is in love with you from the hormonal teenager to the grownups. Even if some of the gunslingers around you are called things like Turkey and The Dancing Kid.

When I made a documentary about Westerns for Radio 4, I found that in the 1950s women made the key choices about cinema viewing and they loved Westerns. Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns, earlier Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious.

I think for 50s housewives who went to see Johnny Guitar – a film about a powerful business woman who’s always right, – she’s often handling her cash on screen – who defies the threat of a lynchmob and who has everyone in love with her – how secretly empowering was that? It also has a memorable song by Peggy Lee and some teasing guitar music. Come on, a title character who’s really good with his fingers. This film is the best introduction to the psychology of sexual symbolism you could offer anyone.

Mercedes McCambridge: The Exorcist demon

Mercedes McCambridge: The Exorcist demon

Now I do think Johnny Guitar would technically fail the Bechdel test. However the film is entirely driven by the dynamic of the two female characters Joan and her nemesis, played by Mercedes McCambridge. The men are very much in their shadow. McCambridge went on to voice the demon possession in The Exorcist. There are a couple of great moments in this film when I think you glimpse that infernal madness.

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 15.17.45

The other thing I ‘ve gained watching it a few times is the parallels with Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause which came out the following year. From the shade of Joan’s red Lipstick – just compare it to Natalie Wood’s trembling lip when she first appears. To the use of Tramp as a term of abuse – tramp as in slut.

But especially in the way the appearance of a hand gun – you remember Pluto the Sam Mineo character in Rebel – brings one with him – can be like a snake with all the Freudian connotations that flood this film.

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 15.22.46

And most visually noticable for me is the way Ray uses buildings and films around staircases for weird perspectives, shooting upwards and downwards on characters; the same in his James Mason-on-steroids film Bigger than Life. Outside the studio saloon there’s an amazing sense of location in the red rocks of the desert. And as for the sexual imagery in the physical landscapes! Like the Griffith Observatory in Rebel, in Johnny Guitar a key location draws us in and upwards to where the climax – in every sense of the word – takes place.

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 15.23.39

 

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 15.29.28

 

James Mason: Bigger Than Life

James Mason: Bigger Than Life

Watch out for the difference in Joan’s power when she’s dressed as a woman rather than as a man with her guns. Sharon Stone’s The Quick And The Dead did something similar.

The Quick And The Dead

The Quick And The Dead

That film, directed by Sam Raimi, is probably the spiritual heir to Johnny Guitar. With a lot more explicit sex with a very young Russell Crowe and Leonardo Di Caprio.

JOHNNY GUITAR

Finally I think it’s interesting both that so many male French directors like Godard and also Martin Scorsese claim to have loved it and that Ernest Borgnine is in it, who went on to star in The Wild Bunch. The kind of Western model that endures to this day with its emphasis on cruelty and male bonding and women as whores and/or victims. Because Johnny Guitar is so genuinely female centred in a way none of their films ever have been. And we will never see its like again. It’s as if there was an edict to shut down this kind of female focused sexual western because the men, while they have great roles, are so clearly not the centre of attention.

Oh, and on the title, another clever trick of the director and marketing of this film. To misquote Carly Simon: Johnny Guitar. You’re so vain, you probably think this film is about you, don’t you?

Further reading

How The West Was Fun (Radio 4 blogpost)

Why I Love Westerns (2011)

 

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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