United States 1954
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Running time: 110 minutes
“If you’re filming anything as bizarre as this story, of rivalry between Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge (her performance was ‘straight sulfuric acid’), then there’s no point in going less than all out.” – Nicholas Ray, Sight and Sound 1961
JOHNNY GUITAR was misunderstood by audiences and critics alike in 1954. It was one in a string of poor receptions for Republic Pictures, which shut down only a few years after the film’s release. This baroque, star-studded picture hit theaters just as public support for Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee and the Hollywood blacklist were beginning to fade. It’s an amateur historian’s mistake to project naiveté onto history. Then, as now, something complex was going on. It’s probably not that audiences didn’t understand Ray’s grandiloquent allegory. It’s more likely that they found it in bad taste. Or lacking in the subtlety that had come to characterize the dilemma of their times. (What passes for wisdom today: the balance between national security and domestic liberty is just so tricky.) Instead, JOHNNY GUITAR’s most influential champions manifested overseas, with all the perspicuity afforded by that distance. François Truffaut admiringly dubbed the film’s style, “Hallucinatory Cinema.” Jean-Luc Godard, as was his M.O., payed homage to it in PIERROT LE FOU (1965) when Belmondo bid his maid to go to the movies because JOHNNY GUITAR was playing and, “She must be educated!”
Over decades, the film’s excellence came into focus. The always-existing absurdity of the McCarthy-era witch hunts gained new resonance in McCambridge’s valkyrian performance as Emma. An unholy fire dances in the whites of her ever-exposed teeth. Crawford’s chiseled virago, Vienna, radiates a belly power that simultaneously usurps and predisposes herself to her love interest, Johnny, played quiet and loose by an outmanoeuvred Sterling Hayden. One of Ray’s pet motifs, the negotiation between tenderness and violence, reaches operatic heights. Then there is the hard work of rewriting one’s name; effacing one’s public identity. Johnny
Logan Guitar. Gun crazy. Criminal. Woman. Accused. Guilty. (“That’s my name. Care to change it?”) And the way Ray’s fastidiously color-coded images bleed a Trucolor red and green. Chemical blues. Mineral yellows.
Is a film like Kathryn Bigelow’s ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012) subtle enough for us today? Does it depict complexities and shades of grey? Is it bent on psychological realism? Don’t get me wrong, it’s really a very good film. Perfectly compelling. But what of truth–? Truth, which was and always will be the maddest of hyperboles?
15 August 2013