Starring-Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden
Reviewed June 15, 2017
Johnny Guitar is an interesting film to review for a few reasons, but most distinct is for its challenging of the traditional mold of the classic western- front and center is an aggressive and strong willed woman, and a saloon owner no less, who is engaged in an antagonistic feud with another woman-with a similar disposition. Of course, since the film stars legendary screen actress Joan Crawford, she ought to be a strong character. The writing of the film is not brilliant and other western stereotypes abound, but Johnny Guitar is a decent watch-mostly for Crawford.
In the middle of an Arizona cattle town, circa the Wild West days, Vienna (Crawford) is a gorgeous and brazen woman, who owns the local watering hole, frequented by less than savory men. Vienna welcomes the men mostly because one of them is a former boyfriend. The rest of the town, led by Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), despises Vienna and her support of the incoming railroad, sure to make Vienna rich.
After a bank robbery, Vienna is pursued by Emma and the town into a standoff, in which lynchings, shootings, and fires encompass the rest of the film. Mixed in with the drama is a romance between Vienna and handsome guitarist, Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), and some musical numbers, but mostly the film is a shoot ’em up led by women.
Let’s take the good with the bad surrounding the film- any picture starring Joan Crawford gets some credit in my book and the role of Vienna is certainly unchartered territory for the glamorous star. Tough talking, gun slinging, and with a short hairdo, rumors abounded that the character of Vienna was gay and in love with her arch enemy Emma. Perhaps, decades later, this might have transpired, but this was 1950’s Hollywood, after all. No, Crawford still dazzles with heavy makeup and bright red lips and is ever so feminine despite the masculine outfit.
Clever, especially for 1954 westerns, is having a tough female character in the central role and this bolsters Johnny Guitar above middling. Typically a genre that sticks to the tried and true, the main female rivalry between Vienna and Emma is the best part of the film, but sadly the back story is never fully explored. Why do they hate each other? Were they in love with the same man? Is their hatred simply because they are the only women in the town?
A chase scene, and the climax of the film is also quite good. How delightful to see Crawford prancing around in peril, riding a horse, and swimming in a creek. The film turns into a good, old fashioned adventure, and the cinematography and exterior sets are not bad.
Two aspects of Johnny Guitar stood out to me as negatives. The romance between Vienna and Johnny Guitar does not work. For starters, Crawford seems much too old for Hayden as Johnny and I never felt any chemistry between the characters- the back story scene with the reveal that they were once an “item” is weak. Besides Emma there are no other female characters at all (a coincidence?), which is a strange aspect to the film. One wonders if this was Crawford’s demand? (but I digress). The romance between the duo is lackluster, though admittedly, I did feel rooting factor for them as the final chapter commenced and the pair was in danger.
The storytelling is only mediocre as I never felt invested in the writing and the entire script feels silly and cheap. The story is laid out in a basic way- Vienna is told by (arguably) the leader of the town, Ward Bond, to close up shop and leave town within twenty-four hours or else there will be hell to pay. When some of the men rob a bank and plan to depart for California, Vienna is blamed in a sloppy contrived plot device, and is set to be hanged. The script is not the high point of the film.
For a gender bending experience and the fabulous addition of Ms. Crawford, Johnny Guitar is worth a watch, but do not expect a masterpiece in storytelling or to be dazzled by character development. Fans of the classic western may be disappointed.