Film Favorites: Johnny Guitar

Is there any way to announce a consideration of Johnny Guitar other than the now famous Jean-Luc Godard quote about Nicholas Ray being “cinema”? Famously, the director expressed that Ray was among the first, if not the first, American auteurs to do with cinema as only cinema could, taking up the poetry of dialogue and the untarnished, painterly quality of art and the distant timelessness of theater and encircling them with the vulture of film, engorging itself on the carcasses of other mediums and ensuring they lived on, in altered, transmuted form, inside cinema.

Godard’s quote is a touch too heated (I’ll take to my grave the thought that Nicholas Ray is among the most underrated auteurs Hollywood ever produced, but that he was the first true advocate of “cinema” is a much more difficult proposition). Certainly, however, Ray’s films always felt more alive with pulsation, even in their embalmed detachment, than those of many other auteurs. And Godard naturally felt the love due to Ray’s unparalleled work in genre as a means of classifying social incoherence and expressing differing views of humanity’s own artifice. If he wasn’t the first true cinematic visionary, he was up there with the greats of his or any other time. 

Many have seen Rebel Without a Cause (famous for James Dean, but a lesser film for Ray) and not known what to do with his amalgamation of hyper-realist modernism and standoffish chicanery, guile, and trickery filtered through a duplicitous brand of what Truffaut (lovingly) called “phony” filmmaking. For anyone who misunderstands Ray, however, Johnny Guitar should be stomping ground number one. It’ll only confuse you some more, but it is an uncommonly pure and unadorned peer into Ray’s particular brand of filmmaking that used the artificial qualities of cinema to elevate everything that was truthful and honest about film and art more generally. More than anything, this is the essence of Godard’s comment: Ray took the cinema and understood how its editing rhythms and composed mise-en-scene separated it from other art forms while revealing all that was stupendous and important about them as art that was not life, but could understand life better than life itself.

The deceptively complicated through-line of Johnny Guitar opens on Sterling Hayden’s Johnny Guitar, summoned by his ex-lover Vienna (Joan Crawford) to bouncer for her local saloon, currently in its death throes due to being opposed by corporate opposition headed by Emma (Mercedes McCambridge). Emma herself falls for Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), who has a thing for Vienna, thus sticking Emma with a certain more intimate target in Vienna. There’s so much more going on in Ray’s Guitar though, and so much of it is exactly what makes Ray’s highly-Freudian, exasperatingly artificial, piercingly mythical approach to filmmaking cripplingly appropriate for the Western genre. He dealt in modern American dreams, and the Western was the literal manifestation of modern-day America’s dreams of a supposedly simpler, more traditional time. Of course, Ray starts by throwing those dreams into an identity crisis in the making, with Guitar from a scripting level turning the masculine Western on its ear through a conflict that centers two women. Vienna, a no-nonsense male archetype who wears pantsuits and wields her chiseled features like a masquerade of powerful masculine identity in a time that all-but required a male demeanor as prerequisite for success (“a time” including all of American history). At some basic level, Crawford’s type is a de facto Hawksian woman, a post-feminist empowered female who has no time for considerations of gender in her everyday bid for individual success. But the film has much more under its sleeve.

The way, for instance, Crawford’s anxious, weakened, melancholy core is allowed to peek through the steeley exterior whenever she thinks the camera isn’t looking, reveals how gender very much does matter in a society that privileges only those who embrace the masculine, and then critiques women for doing so on top of that. In a Hawks film, for instance, the post-feminist woman would have been a type for all women, a reflection that society had moved past gender and that any woman, if she wanted to, could be an Angie Dickinson; this type was empowered on the surface but reflected Hawk’s nascent conservatism, his discomfort with those who still felt women were discriminated against, and his willingness to reduce “positive” conceptions of gender to “making women more like men”.

Ray, of course, was no conservative, and the modernist in him, ever concerned with layers of artifice and social construction, is immediately entranced by the way Crawford reflects a woman trying to be a man and being torn apart by her internal tension and the way women are forced to sacrifice aspects of their identity to fit social conceptions of success. Naturally, the way Ray focuses on a clash between two women who have different identities, actively resisting the norms wherein women are defined by one type even if granted import in a film, also speaks to a certain complicated view of women. As does the way in which Hayden’s Johnny Guitar has very little to do in the film, and often, so often, is reduced to the state of passive watching we would expect out of every female character in just about any other Western.

Now, the tensions do admittedly run deeper: what does it say that Emma is at some level resistant to Vienna because she is jealous of her success and thinks women need to know their place in society, contrasted with her own hypocritical movement-head status. A problem, necessarily, but Ray is savvy enough to visually expose these tensions. Emma, for instance, is almost always filmed as a figure-head, visually backed by her army of (mostly) men who flock to her because she is more interested in exposing traditional conceptions of femininity, while she herself carves out a niche as an empowered social leader by visually fronting them. She is almost never allowed a private persona, always depicted with others behind her, watching her, judging how she acts. The net effect is a huge gap between the way Emma herself simply wants social respect, and how the men who follow her will only allow for this if she subscribes to traditional conceptions of femininity by attacking a masculine woman. Thus, she is painted as a woman in visual tension herself, torn between her internal desires and the way she is forced by society to pursue them through sacrificing women’s rights more generally. The conflict between the two, here, becomes less Emma vs. Vienna than “Emma and Vienna”, who perhaps could have been friends in another life, forced to oppose one another by men who would rather they fight each other than join against the world that would do them harm.

It’s not perfect (at some level, it’s still hard to not see the film as more invested in critiquing a woman for going against women’s rights – thus buying into the self-traitor individualist critique – than in actually tackling the social oppression male privilege causes in the first place, an unfortunate effect of needing some semblance of an individualist villain). But in subscribing to something more tragic than confrontational, it mostly avoids seeing Emma as a villain and instead focuses on her as a would-be friend of Vienna who has turned against her due to a society that only affords a select few places for women at the top. Her anger is misguided, sure, but the film doesn’t so much blame her for it as view her as another casualty of a society that tries to pit the underprivileged against one another for what little opportunities do exist. She is a victim of society turned its agent, and perhaps the most tragic figure of all.

Performance and identity run the gamut in Ray’s stifling concoction, a combustible combination of stagey histrionics and classicist modernism, caught in a perpetual state of arrested development as it is torn and pulled between falling madly in heated, haughty embrace with itself and exposing the rotted, tucked-away lies upon which its American identity is built. As much as Ray has going on to expose the Western and the oppressive conceptions of traditionalism they are built on, he does all of this work in a film that is itself resolutely traditional (it simply takes a modernist view of traditionalism). He uses classical Western visual luster to expose the structures which built the classical Western, cheekily twisting them through a visualist lens. For instance, he frequently shoots Vienna backing a hollowed-out cavern only to pan out to reveal this reclusive spot in the Great Outdoors as a cross section of the interior of her bar made to look like a cave. Here, he literally proposes that the core myth of the Western has been commercialized into modern society, torn apart from the wilderness and dragged into our human-made buildings and our homes to become a part of our identity as people who no longer inhabit the Wild West but think we do. Here, the human-made building housing visions of the Wild West is film itself, and it has more to say about the geography of American identity as it is tied to gender than maybe any film of its time.

Thus, the landscape of Johnny Guitar is itself performative, not so much an honest depiction of the Old West but a hyper-stylized perspective-from-the-mind wherein people move with over-zealous jerks and caged stillness (Hayden is a marvel of passivity here, like a petrified forest transfixed in a whirlwind of classical tragedy and Crawford’s walking-cognitive-dissonance-in-clothing). Everything is heightened, heated, lusty, presentational, and exposed with a romantic softness to present the Western as a myth, and to draw it out into the classical register of grand tall tales and moral fables. It is perhaps the most perfect encapsulation of what Ray did time and time again for modern society in Rebel Without a Cause and Bigger Than Life and In a Lonely Place, here superimposed over visceral dreams and brought down to their knees.

When someone talks about film form expressing its content, when someone talks about storytelling as an avenue for story and theme, someone can seldom do better than Johnny Guitar as a textbook example. It is a work where the almost pop-art colors and hidebound stagecraft of the work tell a story about how people are viced and coerced into adopting superficial types to protect themselves from the fallout of a society that won’t allow for anything else. For Ray, the stage of cinema meant nothing less than the core of human interest, the deeply intimate and psychological ways in which people understood (or failed to understand) themselves and the world around them. The Godard quote lives on because it is about Ray specifically, but a much older quote, about “all the world’s a stage” or something or other by some dead guy who’s no Godard (or Nicholas Ray) is even more applicable. Johnny Guitar is Truffaut’s “phony Western”, spoken with “phony” playing the part of the grandest human adjective in all the world’s stage indeed.

Score: 10/10

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