I’m a stranger here myself

I know I intimated that I was leaving off the amateur film critic stuff, but I have to say something about Johnny Guitar, a movie I’ve already seen three times now this year. The last time I watched something which absolutely hit that “yes, this is why I love this medium” spot was Spider-Verse. It feels particularly special in how it seems to be the platonic ideal of the Josh movie, that fuzzy category of cinematic curios which are unapologetically weird and aesthetically extravagant. After three viewings I still can’t find anything I dislike about it. It’s dang near perfect.

Anyway, the thing’s a 1954 western directed by Nicholas Ray about Vienna (Joan Crawford), a strong-willed woman who runs a saloon just outside of an Arizona town. The saloon is strategically placed so that a railway being built will eventually have to pass through her property, bringing her the big bucks. This pisses off the local townsfolk, but especially Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), who has a vendetta against Vienna.

Emma’s brother gets killed in a robbery, and she attempts to rile everyone up into placing the blame on the Dancing Kid (Scott Brady) a former lover of Vienna’s and frequenter of her saloon, who is both another target of her ire and a potential means of somehow implicating Vienna in all this. Meanwhile, the titular Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), another former lover of Vienna’s, shows up to be employed by her as a musician, igniting a whole love triangle thing. And, as it turns out, he has a dark and violent past of his own haunting him.

The plot is all this playing out in the most operatic fashion possible, where the action and dialogue is less concerned with realism per-se, but as a canvas for all the big emotions and stuff (it’s notable just how sketchily-defined the setting is, with the town and its outskirts being an abstract entity consisting almost entirely of plot-relevant characters). Which is to say it’s frequently campy and rather mannered, with “go big or go home” performances all around. It reminds me a bit of Revolutionary Girl Utena, which is also a case where, no, realistically most people are not so monomaniacally driven by their quirks, but it makes sense as a sort of exaggerated psychic drama.

Take Emma, for example. She takes such an obvious pleasure in her ability to manipulate and bend people to her will, and her enmity with Vienna seems entirely driven by the simple fact that Vienna is so implacably defiant. So she must be destroyed (“I’m going to kill you,” Emma says to her with such psychopathic, seething rage that it’s really freaky). The case of the Kid is even weirder, since Emma is attracted to him, and that attraction is interpreted as a vulnerability, a manner in which the Kid exerts power over her. So he must be destroyed.

Vienna is a character equally at home with revolvers and jeans and frilly dresses, to the point where her modulating costume design winds up becoming almost a character in its own right – and I’m absolutely sure that someone somewhere has written a film studies thesis about her wardrobe and what it has to say about gender and stuff. She’s a hardened cynic who clashes against the sunny romanticism of Johnny; she means business, he means love, the kid means amoral passion or something (and maybe it’s notable that Johnny and Vienna are the two characters associated with musical instruments, guitar and piano respectively, while the Dancing Kid, uh, just dances).

I think Truffaut or some other guy said something along the lines of Johnny Guitar being a sort of Beauty and the Beast where Johnny is the beauty, which doesn’t quite work all the way – it’s not like the movie’s going for a complete role-reversal here. But I think I can appreciate the comparison inasmuch as it, considered as a love story, exists at an elemental register akin to a fairy tale, albeit one which opts to begin with an Explosion rather than a “Once Upon A Time”, and which often prefers quip-laden dialogue. The Wild West becomes a liminal, enchanted space for these characters where they confront the Monstrous. Which is why, despite being such melodramatic nonsense, I completely buy into it.

Maybe. There’s a lot going on under the hood here. People seem to want to harp on the Freudian aspects, which are definitely present and blatant to an almost Neon Genesis Evangelion degree (and of course the dreamlike aspects which make it open to a fairy tale reading also naturally make it open to a more purely psychological one).

It’s all so tight in its execution, though. For all that the plot is given over to extravagant gestures, it somehow manages to be rather economical. The first act is almost Aristotelian in its construction, and everything flows so naturally out of the foundation it lays – the movie’s 110 minutes but it kinda feels more like 90 in having a continual momentum without feeling rushed. Or maybe I just like it so much that it goes by quickly.

Visually the thing has exactly the sort of lurid, gauzy colour I love so much about movies of this vintage, and it certainly fits the movie’s dreamy tonality. And I do love its plaintive, romantic orchestral score.

So Johnny Guitar’s a movie I unabashedly love just want to keep gushing about. I enjoy it too much. And it does this while being a western, a genre I have an immense fondness for, but which had hitherto not produced an example I could point to and be like, yes, this is The One which seems like it was made specifically for me. Johnny Guitar is that western. It’s a work of strange beauty.

About Josh W

Scribbler and doodler
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