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USA 1954
Directed by
Nicholas Ray
110 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Johnny Guitar

Although this low budget Republic Western suffers from egregious shortcomings such as gimcrack sets with painted scenery, shoddy back projection, ham acting and stock stunts and is way too long it has survived largely thanks to the highly unusual characterisation of women in a genre which usually leaves them as minor addenda to men doing mannish things, this point of difference making it a favourite of film theory courses.

Compounding the atypicality is the casting of a past-her-prime Joan Crawford as Vienna,  the no nonsense owner of a gambling saloon who for hidden reasons that will be revealed hires Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) to protect her from the  connivances of local ranchers who want to close her business down.  Vienna’s real enemy however is Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) who is engaged in a deadly rivalry for the affections of misunderstood gang leader, The Dancing Kid (Scott Brady).

It’s a florid set up and Philip Yordan’s script from a novel by Roy Chanslor gives it full vent with some, once again for the genre, unusually histrionic dialogue which is emphasised, particularly in Crawford’s case, with wide staring eyes.  Director Ray seems happy to play up the artifice (Crawford’s costumes are eye-popping in their brightness) encouraging everyone to overact (Ernest  Borgnine leers, John Carradine expires nobly in Vienna’s arms and so on) whilst despite the film’s title, Hayden plays second fiddle to Crawford’s dustbowl Scarlett.

Johnny Guitar is over-rated, being neither as good nor as bad as one might hope but it is a quirky cabinet piece.




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