From my DVD collection: Johnny Guitar

Johnny Guitar (1954) by Nicholas Ray

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(that’s the German dvd-cover – with the German subtitle ‘Wenn Frauen hassen’ [trans. ‘When women hate’] – and yes, that is my ugly orange carpet)

So, last night I surveyed my dvd collection and thought it would be fun to watch Johnny Guitar again. I may have been a little wasted – only a little – but I was still right: it was fun.

A couple of years back, I was supposed to do a presentation about this movie. I didn’t quite do the movie justice. But sometimes you are so overwhelmed by a good movie that you hardly know where to begin. Yes, there was the aspect of McCarthyism, of denouncing someone to save one’s own skin but this movie is about so much more than that.

What is truly remarkable is the chemistry/antagonism between the two female characters, Vienna (Joan Crawford) and Emma (Mercedes McCambridge). The story is conducted around the premise that Vienna had a thing with The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) who Emma has a thing for as well. But The Dancin? Kid is not husband-material, so Emma denies her attraction and is instead determined to pin some crime on him. When her brother is murdered, it gives Emma the opportunity to do just that and destroy Vienna in the process. Vienna could be the first of many settlers to flood the territory where railroad tracks are already being built. But Emma is a rancher and she doesn’t care to  share her land with “farmers.”

Easy enough. But Emma is actually so poisonous and murderous – especially toward Vienna – that one can easily interpret her hate for the other woman as attraction. We could argue that she and Vienna had a thing and that The Dancin’ Kid interfered. And, no, I am not the first to suggest such an intepretation. It is surprising to have a Western with two strong female characters. Vienna is wearing pants, and one of her employers suggests that she shows a great amount of male characteristics. Of course, these are not really male characteristics, they are just characteritics men don’t want women to have, like determinism to do whatever it takes to make their business successful, a head for business. The character Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) is, of course, the ploy to make a real woman out of Vienna once again because she has only turned into this half-man because he had left her.

But, as I said, the real attraction of this movie is the chemistry between Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge who play the love/hate between Vienna and Emma to the max.

Mercedes McCambridge makes a great opponent. Emma is mad, there is a wild flicker in her eyes, she absolutely lost her marbles. Her voice is so intense, it’s scary. And you finally understand the saying about a woman scorned… and I don’t know if you have watched Welles’ A Touch of Evil (I have and I consider it one of the worst movies ever) but her role there is only described as Gang Leader – a male role for a female actress and this was 1958, people. And she looks it, too.

Well, if you have a chance to watch Johnny Guitar, do. It’s a classic and a good one at that.

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