Haunting strings from Peggy Lee on the title track are all it takes to set the mood for this Joan Crawford-starring piece. No guitar, though. Nobody named Johnny appears on the track, either. Great song. Busted flush. Explosions off in the distance do not startle Johnny and his horse, his acoustic guitar bobbing away, of more value to him than his own health as he charges to wherever he hears violence. In that regard, Johnny Logan (Sterling Hayden), is the world’s densest bard. His tune is to that of Peggy Lee covers and as he travels around miserable, dust-soaked towns with one property for a fifty-mile stretch, he finds punters who truly, desperately, do not want to hear from him. Yet there he is. It is a miracle he was not pistol-whipped in the opening scenes.
At least his ventures in the storms of the Wild West bring viewers to Joan Crawford and the band of supporting characters this star-studded cast has on offer. An almost comical craps table spin and a desolate bar are confidently showcased and it, like most of Johnny Guitar, oozes a colourful style. From costumes Crawford shoots life into to her powerful presence and scene-stealing lead portrayal. Every corner of Johnny Guitar is bursting with warm flavour and eye-catching detail. No winners in this one, and Ray navigates a lust-fuelled wildcard showdown. Murky lines of morality are drawn by his direction, the steely cast showing immediately in their debut scenes their conniving attitudes. Morally grey expectations of the era are set and lined up nicely, detailed well by a stunning cast, nowhere better than with Crawford’s powerful, cool dedication.
Crawford, the rights to a novel dedicated to her clutched in her hand, mounted a major shift in the fundamentals of the Western genre. Look to the features which John Wayne and his ilk starred in before Johnny Guitar. Look at what came after. Johnny Guitar. An incredible standard is set by an intense rivalry on and off screen, the multitude of former charms, fading from the eyes of those charismatic many who bring to life ambiguous and self-centred characters, is wonderful. Plenty of shootouts of a classic Western standard but an intimate heart which strives for shifting melodramatic momentum at times. Ray, framing his camera to look up at Crawford, is nothing more than a power play. She is very much the heart of this feature, but also the fearful, ruthless force which ties it together. Mercedes McCambridge is key to this development too, and Ernest Borgnine is always a delight, although the man could not manage a poor-quality feature.
An essential showcase of wild west expectations, the inevitable back and forth between two bullish figureheads. Where Johnny Guitar brings out its anti-hero and murky, arguable villain as being cut from the same cloth, there is enough in their differences and their individuality to strike through where it matters. Vienna (Crawford) and Emma (McCambridge) are after the same goal. Neither is set to get it, which can be seen from miles away, but Ray keeps the wheels of momentum moving. Soon, the focus is not on a plucky bard with some sort of bulletproof soul, but on the horrors of small-town investment and running gambling establishments. Of course it turns bloody, it is Texas, after all.