Johnny Guitar, an operatic western centered around two powerful female characters who are more masculine than the men around them, is one of the most unusual westerns of its era, or any era for that matter.
Dense with psychological conflicts and political suggestions, including a not-so-veiled allegory for the McCarthy witch-hunts in Hollywood, which both director Nicholas Ray and screenwriter Philip Yordan have acknowledged was their intention, it is a rich, vivid film directed by an artist at the peak of his powers and one of the most expressive color westerns of all time. And it has been one of the most anticipated DVD releases since the inception of the format.
Made for Republic Pictures, the poor cousin to the dominant Hollywood studios, and designed as a vehicle for Joan Crawford, a once powerful screen superstar whose popularity was in decline but whose talent and business acumen was still in fine form, this is a western as baroque melodrama. Crawford is Vienna, the owner of a saloon and gambling house built on the outskirts of a frontier town. She’s staking her claim for her share of the American dream–she chose her location on a tip about the railroad line coming through the area–and the former saloon girl (western movie code for hooker) used the only path available to her to earn her own capital and build her own business without bowing to anyone. She’s not ashamed of the road she took but neither is she especially proud of it either. Not that anyone in this film has a particularly proud past. It is past, however, for the Vienna we meet is no saloon girl. She’s a businesswoman and a boss and she has the strength and stature to stand up for what is hers, materially and morally. It’s not just business, it’s her right to lay her stake on the future of the American west.
Vienna faces hostility from the local townsfolk, most of it whipped up by Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), who co-owns the bank with her brother, and rancher John McIvers (Ward Bond). They are, not so coincidentally, the richest and most powerful people around. And when the local stagecoach is robbed and a passenger–Emma’s brother, in fact–is killed, a mob arrives at Vienna’s saloon and Emma accuses a group of miners led by the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) of the robbery and Vienna of sheltering the outlaws. There’s no evidence, just suspicion and vitriolic hatred. The repressed Emma is attracted to Dancin’ Kid (seriously, it isn’t just his nickname, it’s the only name anyone knows him by) and can’t decide if she’s more ashamed of her desire of the handsome bad boy or of the fact that Kid has the hots for her rival Vienna. Coupled with the fact that Vienna’s prime location positions her to make a fortune when the railroad comes through, it makes for a combustible mixture of animosity and aggression.